HHS Secretary Becerra visits Orange County to talk mental health

By Alicia Robinson
Orange County Register
March 9, 2022

With state and federal leaders placing a renewed focus on mental health care, Orange County officials are showing off the year-old Be Well OC campus in Orange – but they also acknowledge there’s more to be done to meet residents’ needs for services.

U.S Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra visited Orange County on Wednesday to meet with local leaders and health professionals in Orange and Irvine, where a second, larger Be Well OC campus will be built starting later this year. His OC stops are part of a national tour he’s making to learn how to improve mental health services and crisis care.

The Orange campus, created as a public-private partnership and opened last year, provides a place where anyone – regardless of whether they have health insurance – can go when in crisis, whether from mental illness or substance abuse.

After touring the Be Well facility, Becerra said President Joe Biden tasked his and other federal agencies such as the Veterans Affairs and Housing and Urban Development departments with coordinating their efforts to better address mental health needs. In Biden’s March 1 State of the Union speech, he unveiled a plan to provide more federal funding and take other steps to make mental health treatment as easy to access as care for physical ailments.

“We want to work with you because we’re going to plant seeds in places,” Becerra said. “We want to help those that are taking this to the next level.”

Since May, the Orange Be Well center has treated nearly 4,000 people, said Marshall Moncrief, CEO of Mind OC, the nonprofit that operates Be Well.

One area where it’s had a big impact is as a place law enforcement can take someone having a crisis, when the alternative might be dropping them at a local emergency room or booking them into jail, Orange County Sheriff’s Department Capt. A.J. Patella told Becerra.

“We know when we’re dropping someone off here that they’re going to get the treatment that they need,” he said.

Michael Hunn, CEO of CalOptima, which insures the county’s poorest residents, said nearly three quarters of the people who have passed through Be Well OC so far have been CalOptima members. But the facility also fills a need for people with private insurance.

Veronica Kelley, who heads mental health and recovery services for the OC Health Care Agency, said after a family member was revived from an accidental drug overdose, it was a struggle to get care despite existing insurance coverage.

“We were released from the hospital with nothing” to help them find treatment, Kelley said. “This is not just a public system issue.”

Becerra praised the Orange campus for its attractive, upscale look and its approach of treating people with respect and dignity when they come for help.

Earlier Wednesday, Becerra met with Irvine leaders and Rep. Katie Porter at the Great Park, where city officials highlighted efforts to address mental health issues in their community, including with the creation of the Irvine Police Department’s Mental Health Unit in 2014 and its partnership with Be Well OC to bring a mobile crisis response team to the city.

Mayor Farrah Khan said the secretary’s visit to Irvine and other cities “is like one of the first times where we’ve seen a focus on mental health and finding solutions to servicing our community.”

Porter highlighted her work on a bill called the Mental Health Justice Act, which would establish a national grant program to hire mental health first responders.

The Be Well OC facility in Orange has 93 beds. Officials said the Irvine campus will be about three times as big, with construction to start this fall on a first phase that will include more outpatient services and a focus on youth mental health.

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