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Mental-health advocates continue to press for beds in Arlington

Arlington Sun Gazette - 3/28/2017

As the process for a land swap between the Arlington County government and Virginia Hospital Center plays out, advocates for those facing mental illness continue to press the hospital to provide additional facilities.

The Arlington Mental Health Alliance recently met with hospital officials ? a meeting brokered by Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz ? to press their effort.

"We do very much feel like David vs. Goliath," said Naomi Verdugo, a member of the alliance.

The group says hundreds of patients in need of beds are turned away each year in Arlington, and that the facilities at Virginia Hospital Center are inadequate to meet needs.

The Arlington Community Services Board also has pressed for increased services to local residents in need of mental-health treatment. In a letter to the Health Systems Agency of Northern Virginia in advance of the April hearings, Community Services Board chairman Anne Hermann said her organization fears Virginia Hospital Center "sets a lower priority on satisfying the community needs for mental-health services than for other medical services."

The Community Services Board, whose members are appointed by the Arlington County Board, wants the hospital to amend its application so that "a substantial number" of the additional beds could be licensed for both medical/surgical and psychiatric uses.

A 2014 survey conducted for the hospital found mental-health issues at the top of a list of important community health concerns, ranking ahead of issues that included obesity, diabetes, substance abuse, cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer's and domestic violence.

Adrian Stanton, Virginia Hospital Center's vice president and chief marketing officer, said the hospital is interested in expanding mental-health facilities, but can't do anything unless it has the ability to grow its physical footprint by acquiring property currently owned by the county government just north of the existing hospital campus.

As for the concerns of groups advocating for those with mental illness?

"We continue to have dialogue. We understand their concerns," he said. "We've committed to work with them."

Verdugo brought her concerns to the County Board'sMarch 18 meeting, asking elected officials to press the hospital for improvements before agreeing to any land swap. Her group is asking for additional psychiatric beds and private rooms for patients.

County Board Chairman Jay Fisette responded with a degree of support, if not a promise.

"The board is in many ways sympathetic" to the request, Fisette said.

(How committed the County Board is to pressing for additional mental-health capacity remains to be seen. In individual meetings between the mental-health alliance and County Board members, "all of them except maybe one hedged their bets," one of the alliance members said during an roundtable discussion held in March.)

Schwartz said he was hopeful everyone involved in the issue of the mental-health facilities could walk away satisfied with the final outcome.

"It's really important . . . to try and reach a satisfactory conclusion," he said.

Verdugo said her group, upon reflection, has decided to support the request for additional beds, but ? like the Community Services Board ? seeks flexibility in whether they are for general medical purposes or specifically for mental-health services.


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