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New behavioral hospital will make a difference

Eileen Shanley-Roberts, Christ Episcopal Church in WaukeganOn a Tuesday evening recently, a parishioner called me because she found herself confronted with a family health crisis. Her adult grandson was suicidal and needed immediate help.

I quickly made calls to determine the best place to find that help and was told that the very best place was a behavioral crisis center in Racine, Wisconsin, but it was closed for the night. We then did what so many Americans are forced to do when they find themselves in this situation -- we went to the hospital emergency room. And there we also experienced what so many people experience -- a six hour wait to see a doctor.

Somehow, we talked and cajoled my parishioner's grandson all through that long night. As we did, we saw a young woman brought into the emergency room, also in terrible mental distress. She was escorted by a police officer, who was still waiting with her as we met with a doctor. The hospital admitted the young man, who remained there, in treatment, for an entire week before he was stable enough to be discharged.

Our experience -- a closed behavioral center many miles away, a six-hour wait in an emergency room, police spending countless hours with a distressed person because of a shortage of doctors and appropriate mental health response systems is in no way exceptional, unfortunately. When we met with 35 Waukegan police officers recently, who were completing important training in how to respond to calls involving those with serious mental health issues, we heard many more stories like ours.

While police are learning how to de-escalate interactions involving those suffering from mental illness, they often have no place to take those individuals for treatment and care. They end up in the nearest emergency room, just like me and my congregant. Or they are forced to take a troubled person to jail -- the other institution that has served as the default destination for the mentally ill. These responses -- a chair in an emergency room or a bed in a jail cell -- are costly and ineffective. The police can't patrol our streets and respond to actual crimes. The mentally ill can't get proper care and get better.

This experience motivated me to join dozens of other leaders from Lake County United to attend a public hearing recently in Bolingbrook. The hearing was called to consider a proposal by U.S. HealthVest to purchase Vista West Hospital and establish a behavioral hospital in Waukegan.

My fellow Lake County United leaders and I were there to support that proposal. We had researched U.S. HealthVest's track record and were impressed by what we learned. The company had taken over Maryville Behavioral Hospital in Des Plaines a few years ago when that hospital had only four patients left. Today that hospital serves 125 patients. And we were pleased when the review board voted unanimously to accept the U.S. HealthVest plan.

This for-profit hospital is stepping up to fill a need that no other hospital or health care provider in Lake County has the resources or interest to address.

Emergency room visits at nonprofit hospitals are considered charity care for those unable to pay, which is less of a financial incentive to decrease the flow of emergency room visits.

Now that U.S. HealthVest received a favorable vote from the Illinois Health Facility and Service Review Board, it will take over the existing 46 beds in Waukegan and add 100 more beds. U.S. HealthVest has publicly committed to turn no one away based on ability to pay.

Similar to their other hospitals they will implement a 15-minute intake process, which means people will not have to wait for six hours in the emergency room. Police will be able to deliver troubled individuals to a professional facility and then head back out into the community to serve and protect.

We applaud the Review Board for its approval, as well as Waukegan Mayor Sam Cunningham, Lake County Board Chairman Aaron Lawlor, the Lake County Health Department and the Lake County State's Attorney's Office for supporting this effort.

I look forward to the day when I can help my parishioner and my neighbors who find themselves in crisis by driving a few minutes to a facility capable of providing the quality of care that everyone deserves.

The Rev. Eileen Shanley-Roberts is from Christ Episcopal Church in Waukegan and Lake County United.