• Plans for a second new psychiatric hospital move to Tacoma City Council

    By: DEBBIE COCKRELL, The News Tribune

    Updated:

    TACOMA, Wash. - A second psychiatric hospital for Tacoma is moving closer to clearing its last hurdle before construction.

    California-based Signature Healthcare Services has plans for a 105-bed psychiatric hospital at South 19th Street and South Proctor Street, a few blocks west of the 120-bed Wellfound Behavioral Health Hospital, run through a partnership of the MultiCare and CHI Franciscan local health systems.

    The project requires a rezone of the property, which requires council approval. On Tuesday, the council will hear the first reading of that ordinance. A final vote is expected at the Sept. 24 council meeting.

    In August, hearing examiner Jeff Capell recommended approval of the rezone and offered conditional approval of the project's permits.

    The council has three options in considering the project.

    It could choose to follow Capell's recommendation to approve the requested rezone, approve the rezone with conditions different from the original recommendation or deny the rezone.

    A memorandum by city staff cites strategic policy priorities in allowing the project to provide services to residents amid the local existing bed shortage in psychiatric care, plus the promise of jobs.

    Wellfound has yet to be fully accredited, and recently confirmed that it has halted admissions entirely, four months after its initial opening.

    The bulk of a public hearing in July on Signature's plans revealed deep concerns among neighbors about the operational safety of the site and its proximity to neighborhoods, parks, a densely wooded area and schools.

    Signature submitted answers to the safety questions raised.

    In a letter to the city dated July 18, Signature wrote: "People who are in desperate need of substance use and behavioral health services are already in this Pierce County community. Adequately treating them makes the community safer."

    It also stated: "... patient safety is our top priority at all times. The proposed Tacoma hospital will be a locked facility. That means that each unit where patients are admitted will require employee supervision and escort to any public parts of the hospital, and by extension, the neighboring community."

    This summer, the company faced a legal battle in California over one of its sites. The case involved sexual assaults of three patients by a former employee of Signature's Aurora Vista del Mar Hospital in Ventura, California.

    The three former patients contended that the hospital and Signature were responsible for the ex-worker's actions against them, alleging inadequate training, insufficient staffing and mistakes made in the hiring/background check process.

    Signature's President and CEO Soon Kim testified in the trial that Signature's influence on Vista del Mar and its other psychiatric hospitals came in the form of guidance, not in specific mandates involving day-to-day care of patients.

    In August, the California jury ruled that the hospital, the former worker and Signature all bore responsibility in the case and awarded the patients $13.25 million, according to the Ventura County Star.

    An attorney for the hospital said the verdict against Vista del Mar and Signature was a result of an erroneous instruction from the judge involving liability over whether an institution should have known there was a higher risk for sexual assault, according to the Ventura newspaper. The hospital has said it would appeal the ruling.

    Signature also was ordered to pay $150,000 in punitive damages. The plaintiffs' attorney had asked for $36 million to $45 million.

    Before the punitive damages were decided, Signature's chief financial officer testified that the company had gross revenues of $826 million in 2018, but overall operating losses of $17 million.

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