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updated: 1/9/2018 5:11 PM

146-bed psychiatric hospital in Waukegan wins approval

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Lake County officials and mental health advocates are applauding a Tuesday ruling by the Illinois Health Facilities and Services Review Board they say will provide greatly needed services and help keep those with mental issues out of jail.

The nine-member board unanimously approved a $30.2 million proposal by New-York based US HealthVest to purchase Waukegan's Vista Medical Center West and transform it into a state- of-the-art, 146-bed psychiatric hospital known as Lake Behavioral Hospital.

The privately held company operates the Chicago Behavioral Hospital in Des Plaines, two hospitals in Georgia and one in Washington, and is building a 100-bed behavioral health hospital on Silver Cross Hospital's New Lenox campus.

Dr. Richard Kresch, founder and CEO of US HealthVest, said Vista's ownership contacted him last year after HealthVest ran into zoning issues with a proposed 100-bed hospital in Northbrook.

"During our search for alternatives, we received a call from Vista asking if we would be interested in working together on behavioral health," Kresch testified. "Vista recognized its limitations in the provision of behavioral health services and wanted to focus its resources on the operation of the acute care operation on the Vista East campus."

When it opens in October 2019, the Waukegan facility will offer treatment ranging from pediatric needs to senior citizens and substance abusers, he said.

Before the vote, Lake County Health Department Executive Director Mark Pfister told the board his organization serves 50,000 individuals annually and could refer as many as 1,100 to the facility. By 2020, he estimated being able to refer as many as 1,350 patients.

Lake County State's Attorney Michael Nerheim said the favorable ruling is not the only answer to Lake County's mental health crisis but called it a "huge help."

"There's been a lot of emphasis on doing everything we can to ensure people with mental health issues don't end up in the criminal justice system, which up until recently is where most of these people have been ending up because of the lack of treatment capacity," Nerheim said after the approval. "Hopefully with this being here, in Waukegan, we can divert some of the people who are otherwise ending up in our emergency rooms or jail, into treatment."

The project also has received strong support from Lake County United, a group of more than two dozen churches and civic organizations working to improve the quality of life for residents.

"It's a long time coming. The fact that there was so much support and no opposition just goes to show how desperately these services are needed," group organizer Amy Lawless-Ayala said. "I'm ecstatic to see it moving forward."