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Arizona pushing private expansion of state mental hospital

PHOENIX — The state health department is asking the Arizona Legislature to pass a law allowing it to lease parts of the state mental hospital and its 93-acre grounds to private providers.

Department of Health Services Director Cara Christ told the House health committee at a hearing last week that her department wants to build a Center for Psychiatric Excellence on the grounds.

The hospital and grounds about a mile north of Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport is held in a charitable trust for the benefit of mental health patients in the state. The law change would allow Christ to sign short- and long-term leases and development agreements with private providers.

The hospital itself will not be privatized and its staff will remain state employees, said Colby Bower, an assistant director at the department.

The hospital currently has 311 patients divided between three units — one for sex offenders, one for patients who have been convicted of serious crimes and determined to be insane, and one for people ordered by the courts to be hospitalized because of mental illness.

The idea is to have private mental health providers develop facilities that would create a behavioral health campus. They could include outpatient behavioral health services, urgent psychiatric services, 24-hour holds for observation and stabilization, short stays for adult inpatient acute psychiatric services and a psychiatric emergency room.

Private providers could use empty hospital wards, renovate and use vacant buildings or build new facilities.

“We are looking to build a campus of psychiatric excellence to help build the workforce to increase the behavioral health services that are provided in the community and to be able to provide our patients with the entire continuum of psychiatric care,” Christ told the committee.

Christ needs legislative approval to enter into the leases, and has the approval of the chairwoman of the House health committee. Rep. Heather Carter, R-Cave Creek. She called it a good way to combine providers on one campus and leverage state assets.

“I think the idea is really forward-thinking,” Carter said in an interview Friday. “And I applaud our agencies for thinking entrepreneurial about how to make highest and best use of the land. That’s prime real estate and it has a clearly articulated purpose to serve our Arizona citizens.”

The committee advanced House Bill 2043 on an 8-0 vote with one abstention on Thursday. It now heads to floor debate after a routine constitutional review.

The hospital has plenty of unused space. It currently has about 80 unoccupied beds in four wards in the secured civil hospital that could be leased out; a building with a 28-bed capacity now used as administrative space that could become an urgent care center; and 23 available beds in a building adjacent to the criminal commitment unit.

The hospital also has a vacant building that could house offices or patient beds, an abandoned complex of 10 single-story buildings that could be razed or renovated and an empty 2-acre plot that could be a building site.

About a dozen private providers from large hospitals to small groups expressed interest after the health department asked for feedback, Bower said.

“We feel like there’s enough interest out there to move forward,” he said.