A previous version of this article inverted two numbers in the address of the planned facility. It is 601 S. Carlin Springs Rd., not 610 S. Carlin Springs Rd. The article has been corrected.
“We are really enthusiastic about the options that this is going to bring forward in the community to address the shortage of mental health beds in particular,” Arlington County Board member Katie Cristol (D) said in a joint interview Tuesday with hospital officials announcing the news.
The announcement comes as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) has proposed expanding investment in the state’s strained behavioral health system, which serves as a public safety net for people in need of care.
Underfunded and overcrowded state-run psychiatric hospitals have struggled to keep up with rising demand, sometimes leaving people court-ordered to inpatient treatment languishing in emergency rooms as they await a bed.
Challenges have been particularly acute for Virginia’s youth as need for services has outstripped capacity. Virginia ranked 48th in the nation in youth mental health in 2022, plummeting from 21st the previous year, according to data from Mental Health America.
VHC Health does not currently offer inpatient behavioral health services in the county, said Melody Dickerson, its chief nursing officer. And with need increasing, the health system’s current 20-bed inpatient rehab unit is between 90 and 100 percent full on any given day.
VHC Health, a private nonprofit formerly known as Virginia Hospital Center, plans to build the new facility at 601 S. Carlin Springs Rd., the site of a former annex that housed an urgent-care center and pediatric site. The hospital system had previously exchanged the 11.57-acre property with the county as part of a land-swap deal to accommodate its ongoing expansion at a campus in North Arlington. About half of the property will now return to VHC Health.
Civic groups and county leaders had for years debated the future of that property, which is undergoing demolition. It had been considered for a public bus or school bus depot, though neither of those uses ever received approval from county lawmakers.
Cristol said she hopes the rest of the site will be used for natural or green space. VHC and the county will also be splitting the costs of building an underground parking garage to serve both uses on the site.
County Manager Mark Schwartz said VHC will also be taking on the costs of demolishing existing buildings on the site.
VHC Health staffs 71 dedicated mental health beds at its current facilities. Once the new site is open, the hospital will use that existing space for a 14-bed geriatric mental health unit.
Behavioral health-care providers in Virginia and across the country have been struggling to recruit and retain staff — a problem Dickerson said has been less acute at VHC Health. Julia Ferrier, a spokeswoman for the health system, said turnover fell by 7.3 percent from 2021 to 2022.
The new VHC Health facility will accept all forms of insurance, including Medicaid. The goal of outpatient programs and other community-based care is to prevent people from reaching the kind of crisis that can end in hospitalization or incarceration.
“When you think about the continuum of care today, VHC is really centered on that acute episode,” Dickerson said. “What this programming does for us is it really takes on that entire continuum, from your baseline therapy to intensive therapy to a partial hospitalization program.”
Youngkin’s proposed $230 million plan also would invest in pathways designed to keep people out of institutions. He aims to hire 30 mobile crisis teams, fund intake centers, expand mental health programs in schools and provide in-home services to 500 people waiting for Medicaid waivers.
The approach is designed to help relieve pressure on overburdened public services and fill existing gaps in care.
The state’s 40 community services boards, which provide publicly funded behavioral health services, face staffing shortages and an overwhelming demand for care, a 2022 study by Virginia’s Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission found. Ten percent of people in state psychiatric hospitals remained in the facility for an average of 79 days after they were ready for discharge because they were waiting on community services boards to finish certain tasks.
Cristol said Arlington’s community services board had been working closely with VHC leaders on the details of expansion plans.
Jenna Portnoy contributed to this report.