Samaritan Health Services has reduced patient capacity and staffing at its regional inpatient mental health unit in Corvallis as it gears up to offer intensive outpatient care under a new program called partial hospitalization.

Officials with the regional hospital operator say the new arrangement will help it do a better job of serving the wide variety of patient needs.

Built with enough room for 32 beds when it opened in 2002, the freestanding psychiatric unit at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center in Corvallis was ultimately licensed for 28. The unit was staffed and outfitted for just 24 beds, but even that turned out to be greater than the demand for inpatient mental health treatment in the mid-valley, according to Becky Pape, the hospital’s CEO.

“We have been built to handle over 20 patients down there for a number of years, but we actually ran a census of less than 16,” Pape said.

In mid-November, Samaritan downsized the inpatient mental health unit to 16 beds, maintaining its state license for 28 but notifying the Oregon Health Authority, as required, of the reduction in capacity.

Since that time, Samaritan officials said, the facility’s patient census has averaged 11.7 and has never gone as high as 16. Data were not immediately available to show whether the patient census had ever spiked above 16 in past years.

The change resulted in a reduction of 10 jobs. Some of the displaced employees are being transitioned into other positions with Samaritan, Pape said, while the rest have accepted severance packages and are planning to retire.

The downsizing will free up space in the mental health building at 3509 NW Samaritan Drive for use in the new partial hospitalization program, which should be up and running by this fall.

Samaritan’s partial hospitalization program is expected to operate from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday and will have the capacity to treat up to 20 patients. It will offer intensive group therapy, adult education and life skills training, medication management and other support services.

Patients can be admitted to the program by their personal physician or mental health specialist. They can also transition into partial hospitalization from the inpatient psychiatric unit or a hospital emergency department, which is often the point of entry for people experiencing a mental health crisis.

Pape said the change in approach is an extension of a recent trend by Samaritan toward providing more outpatient services for mental health.

“We’ve added more than 30 professionals in the last three years in behavioral health,” she said. “Where we’re going with partial hospitalization is going to actually fill a need that is not being met in our community.”

As it stands, people experiencing a mental health crisis generally go to a hospital emergency room. From there, they can either be admitted to a psychiatric unit or sent home, but there’s currently no level of care between those two extremes in the mid-valley.

That’s where partial hospitalization comes in, according to Dr. James Douglas, Samaritan’s medical director for inpatient mental health.

“(ER personnel) don’t have anyplace to stabilize somebody other than inpatient, and that’s not for everybody,” Douglas said.

“People who prefer to go home at night but still need intensive treatment, that’s the need this fills.”

But advocates for people with mental health issues say they have some concerns about Samaritan’s decision to cut staffing levels for inpatient care.

“There aren’t a ton of beds (statewide), and we do run into situations where a hospital is at capacity and has to ship patients to other parts of the state,” said Chris Bouneff, executive director of the Oregon chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Bouneff applauded Samaritan’s plans to offer partial hospitalization in Corvallis but said he’s worried that it won’t be a practical solution for people who live in some of the more remote corners of Samaritan’s far-flung three-county service area.

“You have to live in the local area to participate in it,” he said. “It’s a great service, it’s a necessary service, but its limitation is geography.”

Douglas said he’s confident the mid-valley will still have enough inpatient capacity to meet demand for that level of treatment, with additional beds available in nearby counties if needed.

“Eugene and Salem both have inpatient (facilities),” Douglas said. “We don’t have the inpatient bed squeeze that Portland had.”

And Bill Howden, Samaritan’s vice president for patient care services, said the partial hospitalization program itself should help reduce the need for inpatient beds.

“Keep in mind that centers that have started partial hospitalization programs have experienced a decrease in demand for inpatient beds and more patients being discharged sooner from the emergency department to partial hospitalization,” Howden said.

And he added that expanding options beyond the psychiatric unit for people experiencing a mental health crisis could encourage more people to get the help they need.

“There can be a stigmatization of inpatient treatment for people,” Howden said.

“Outpatient treatment doesn’t carry that same stigma.”

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.