Legacy Hires President For Unity Center

Legacy Health has hired a mental health expert with a business degree to oversee the Unity Center for Behavioral Health, Oregon’s only emergency psychiatric care facility.

Melissa Eckstein will become president of Unity on Sept. 30, replacing Gretchen Nichols who has served as interim CEO since February. 

“We selected Melissa after a rigorous nationwide search with multiple highly qualified candidates,” Trent Green, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Legacy Health said in the statement. “Melissa brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in creating safe, caring environments for patients experiencing acute behavioral health crises and has a strong background in fostering relationships with staff, patients and the community.”  

Eckstein, who’s moving to Portland from Tucson, Arizona, had held leadership positions at several behavioral health centers that specialize, like Unity, in treating patients in crisis. Most recently, she served as the chief executive officer of the Tucson-based Palo Verde Behavioral Health. The facility offers individualized inpatient and intensive outpatient treatment programs for adults and adolescents dealing with mental health and substance abuse issues. Before that, Eckstein was chief operating officer for Spring Mountain Treatment Center and Spring Mountain Sahara in Las Vegas, Nevada. She also served as CEO for Salt Lake Behavioral Health Hospital in Salt Lake, Utah, and COO for Ascend Health Corporation. 

She arrives at Legacy a year after a state investigation of neglect, abuse and two patient deaths. A third death was announced in August. Legacy did not comment on the death, citing health care privacy laws. A spokeswoman for Multnomah County said that if anything untoward were discovered, authorities would be required to investigate. An investigation was not launched.

A year ago investigators found at least one instance of sexual assault at Unity along with negligence and a long list of other safety hazards. Federal authorities put the center on notice, threatening to withdraw Medicaid certification. Unity responded with a correction plan and was given a green light by the Oregon Health Authority and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

It’s since hired a number of nurses and other staff. 

The center opened in 2017 as a collaboration among Legacy, Oregon Health & Science University, Adventist Health and Kaiser Permanente. Legacy runs the center, which is jointly funded. It was modeled after a treatment center in California. It has in-patient beds and also a large, open room with dozens of recliners where patients receive immediate care. Known as the PES, or Psychiatric Emergency Services, the space was modeled after a center in California and is designed to treat large numbers of people quickly. There are currently 30 patients in the PES and 95 in the inpatient section.

Eckstein said in a statement that compassionate around-the-clock care is needed for people in a mental health crisis.

“We can only do this with a highly-trained staff of professionals who feel supported and can focus on providing high-level care to patients,” Eckstein said in the statement. “I look forward to working with Legacy Health leaders, staff and other partners to continue to improve the Unity Center model of care and to continue to build upon this greatly-needed service in the community.”

Eckstein, a licensed clinical social worker, has two masters: one in the science in social work and another in business administration. Legacy declined to disclose her salary.

You can reach Lynne Terry at [email protected].

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