Judge orders Western State officials to create plan to comply

EVERETT — A Snohomish County judge on Thursday ordered Western State Hospital officials to come up with a plan detailing how they are going to comply with a state law and federal mandate requiring the hospital to cut down on long wait times for mentally ill inmates languishing in county jails.

Superior Court Judge Anita Farris was told that the state doesn’t expect to be in compliance until at least June, some six months past a deadline set by a federal judge. She also was told that inmates are waiting longer for treatment than before the April ruling in U.S. District Court.

In the criminal case before Farris, the defendant is a mentally ill man who gets around using a wheelchair. He is accused of stalking his father and threatening to shoot up a school. He has been found incompetent to stand trial. He’s been waiting since November for treatment at Western. The man talked throughout Thursday’s day-long hearing, often speaking over his lawyer and witnesses. Corrections officers finally removed him after he started speaking in gibberish and yelling at the judge.

His parents, who are fearful that he’ll be released without treatment, watched from the back of the courtroom. Western has refused to admit the man, despite a court order. He isn’t expected to be hospitalized until Jan. 11. His case is one of several that the Snohomish County Superior Court bench is being forced to review under similar circumstances. Farris was told Thursday that 92 people were waiting to be admitted to Western for competency restoration services.

The longtime judge ordered hospital officials and their lawyer, a state assistant attorney general, to return Jan. 7 with a plan detailing how they are going to add more beds and provide treatment for patients who are unable to assist with their own defense.

Farris again ordered public defender Tiffany Mecca to subpoena Kevin Quigley, the secretary of the state Department of Social and Health Services. The judge was told last month that Quigley was out of the state on vacation but plans were under way to serve him a subpoena once he returned.

“The buck stops with Mr. Quigley,” Farris said.

The judge earlier this month said she would arrest state officials if they didn’t show up to explain why they continue to violate the law.

She pointed out that Quigley wrote a letter in November to staff saying that he was pausing efforts to open new competency beds because federal inspectors determined that the hospital didn’t have adequate personnel for its existing wards. Western is at risk of losing federal funding if it doesn’t improve safety and staffing.

Quigley wrote in the letter that his department should have taken more of a stand against judges who ordered the hospital to cut wait times. Pretrial defendants are waiting weeks and months in county and city jails for treatment.

Legislators passed a law in July ordering the mental hospital to admit people within 14 days. U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman instituted a seven-day deadline after a lawsuit was filed on behalf of several inmates. She found that defendants’ constitutional rights were being violated. She ordered the hospital to be monitored and to make progress toward cutting wait times. She gave Western until Jan. 2.

Victoria Roberts, the deputy assistant secretary for DSHS, testified Thursday that the hospital cannot meet Saturday’s deadline. She and Western CEO Ron Adler told Farris that the national shortage of psychiatrists and unsuccessful efforts to recruit mental health nurses and other personnel has impeded the state’s efforts to increase capacity at the hospital.

There are 10 openings for psychiatrists at Western. The hospital in 2015 hired about 350 people, including nurses and security staff, but turnover is high. The judge was told that comparatively low salaries, mandatory overtime and safety concerns have led to people quitting.

The hospital is taking steps to recruit more staff. Gov. Jay Inslee recently approved salary increases and signing bonuses. The state plans to add 30 beds outside the hospital using contract workers as a short-term solution. Maple Lane, a former juvenile detention center in Centralia, is expected to come online in April. Another center is planned to open in Yakima in March.

Farris pointed out that staffing shortages at the hospital have been going on for years. In 2012 state lawmakers ordered DSHS to come up with a long-term plan to address the problems that are causing treatment delays. Legislative auditors found that the department provided inaccurate data and failed to come up with an adequate plan.

Farris said that she couldn’t hold the hospital in contempt for the “massive screw-ups in the last three years,” but she can demand that they show what steps they are taking now. If they don’t make progress on the specific steps she’s ordered them to detail, Farris said she can fine them up to $2,000 a day for each violation.

The judge Thursday also questioned why prosecutors aren’t enforcing the state law that requires the hospital to admit patients within 14 days. She signed an order requiring the state Attorney General’s Office to have someone at the next hearing to answer that question.

“The state and state agents should be putting on evidence to enforce the law passed by the state Legislature,” Farris said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @dianahefley.

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