County Supervisor Gregg Hart pushed a resolution to allow the county’s lockdown psych unit to expand from 16 to 24 beds. | Credit: Erick Madrid

The county’s long-overwhelmed Psychiatric Health Facility (PHF) could handle as many as 24 patients with acute mental illnesses at any given time instead of just 16 ​— ​as has long been the case ​— ​if a resolution adopted unanimously on Tuesday by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors were to eventually bear fruit.

The severe shortage of PHF beds ​— ​reserved for patients deemed to pose a danger to themselves or others ​— ​has bedeviled mental-health providers in the county for at least 30 years and has occasioned outraged reports by numerous county grand juries. Causing this shortage has not been a limit of physical space so much as it’s been federal rules designed to prevent the warehousing of people with mental illnesses in large institutions. These rules do not allow federal compensation for acute-care patients in stand-alone institutions (those not attached to a hospital) with more than 16 beds.

At the prodding of mental-health advocates and with the support of Behavioral Wellness Director Alice Gleghorn, the supervisors signed a resolution urging state health-care planners to seek a waiver to these federal rules. How state officials will respond is the subject of much speculation but no certainty.

Jan Winter, a longtime member of the Behavioral Wellness Commission, said 159 county mental-health patients are currently housed in institutions outside county boundaries at a cost of $1,000 a day. If the rules were changed to expand the size of the county’s PHF, she said, far more could be treated closer to home and family at far less cost to the taxpayer.


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