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New treatment beds coming to Walla Walla mean getting help closer to home

Walla Walla Union-Bulletin - 4/16/2021

Apr. 15—Comprehensive Healthcare is about to dive into a project that will help local people stay close to home and family as they seek help for substance-use disorders.

The mental health agency will soon start construction on the first floor of its Walla Walla office at 1520 Kelly Place to create a secure detox care unit.

Officially called a "Secure Withdrawal Management and Stabilization" facility, the operation is aimed at caring for patients who are ready to get help and those who a judge decides must have help with a substance-use disorder.

That typically happens when someone appears to be in danger of serious harm or is "gravely disabled" due to substance abuse, according to Washington state Health Care Authority.

When the Walla Walla Comprehensive building is remodeled, there will be 16 treatment beds ready for use sometime in the fall of 2022, said Ron Gengler, chief clinical officer.

The closest such care is now hours away in Spokane or Yakima; although there used to be a detox unit in Tri-Cities, that hasn't been true for several years, said Courtney Hesla, a vice president at Comprehensive's Yakima headquarters.

Many studies and multiple experts underline the importance of family and community in treatment of addictions. The National Institute of Health notes family plays a central role in treating any health problem, and that's a strong and continuing theme in many treatment plans.

In substance-abuse treatment, while the client is the patient, the goal of treatment is to meet the needs of all family members for the best chance of success once outside the facility.

Not only can family members be helpful in the treatment process, but they also have to deal with the consequences of a patient's addictive behaviors. Providing services to a whole family — that term can circle in friends, partners, involved community members — is a best practice in those cases, according to the NIH.

When a person has to leave community and loved ones behind to get treatment, that approach is less able to be carried out, experts say.

Hesla agrees, noting Walla Walla County has a "tremendous amount of resources already," and keeping local patients close to home means they can access those services sooner as they come out of detox.

"There really isn't anything like this on this side of the state. Even the one in Spokane is challenged by the co-occurring population, people with mental health and substance-use disorders."

It's the hardest combination of issues to get treatment for, Gengler said, noting some people just don't get help at all due to paucity of services.

Local law enforcement, judicial and healthcare organizations have all expressed support of the plan to build the facility, but have questioned the impact on the court system and community overall, Hesla said.

In other cities where Comprehensive oversees detox services, there have been no problems to date, Gengler said.

"We don't find the population that needs involuntary treatment to a problem in a community," he said.

"We do not have clients eloping into the community. That's something I'm pretty proud of as chief clinical officer."

There is stigma surrounding involuntary detention and a perception of violence, but those patients are actually neighbors, friends and family members, he said.

The reality is, most patients will be coming into the facility from the community because of a recognized need and "not on the heels of an offense," Hesla said.

In 2018, Washington state legislature passed "Ricky's Law," which provides extra requirements under the Involuntary Treatment Act. Among other things, the legislation means hospitals have to meet certain requirements when presented with people posing a danger to self or others or who are gravely disabled due to a substance-use disorder or a behavioral health condition.

Before the law, there was no way to detain people in danger solely on their substance-use disorder, Hesla said.

"Now you can detain and treat people who are really disabled by it. But the state only initially funded to build two secure detox centers, so it became a sort of unfunded mandate."

Mandatory stays in detox can last up to 14 days, while voluntary admits run three to five days.

The expected cost of construction is about $12 million, and $2 million of that comes from a federal grant, Gengler said.

When the detox unit opens, it will employ about 40 people; the hiring process will begin in the summer of 2022.

In the meantime, the design process is ongoing. Plans call for an outdoor courtyard, a full-size commercial kitchen, plenty of informal seating areas, private rooms and space for therapy groups.

The current ground floor tenants, Helpline and Blue Mountain Heart to Heart, will have a minimum of six months notice to vacate their offices, Gengler said.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at or 526-8322.


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