Lawmakers propose oversight panel for psychiatric hospitals

OLYMPIA — State lawmakers are pursuing a stronger voice in the day-to-day operation of Washington’s two psychiatric hospitals.

A bill introduced with bipartisan support calls for creating a legislative oversight committee and hiring a mental health expert to keep watch on how Western and Eastern state hospitals are run.

Supporters said Monday the goal of House bill 2453 is to help the facilities, especially Western State Hospital which has been plagued by insufficient staffing, court dictates for evaluating mentally ill defendants, and federal scrutiny of its ability to ensure the safety of patients.

“My very personal viewpoint is that I feel responsible for what’s happening and not happening there,” said Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, the bill’s prime sponsor. “The citizens of the state deserve a mental health system that works, and it’s not working.”

Rep. Jay Rodne, R-Snoqualmie, a co-sponsor, said the bill reflects frustration with what’s transpired and a realization they need to be more immersed in the situation.

“We need to fix our mental health system and that includes these institutions,” he said. “Ultimately the Legislature needs to have greater oversight.”

A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday by the House Judiciary Committee. Jinkins is the committee chairwoman and Rodne the ranking minority member.

House Bill 2453 would create a 12-person bipartisan, bicameral Joint Select Committee on State Hospital Oversight.

This panel of lawmakers would hire an expert in publicly funded mental health systems to keep watch on the two hospitals operated by the Department of Social and Health Services.

The expert would consult with lawmakers on funding and policy matters related to the hospitals. They could make recommendations for changes as they see fit. Also, if the committee receives complaints or concerns about the hospital, it could direct this expert to ferret out the facts and report back.

Jinkins said the oversight committee would work to improve mental health services and not be at cross purposes with the executive branch in which DSHS is housed.

Tuesday’s hearing on the bill comes days after lawmakers received a report from DSHS on its hospital staffing challenges — a report that was due April 1.

Lawmakers wanted a staffing plan by that date, but it didn’t get done and, as it turned out, circumstances have rapidly evolved and the staffing situation worsened.

U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman ruled in April that the state has been routinely violating the constitutional rights of defendants who are jailed while awaiting treatment at the state’s two psychiatric hospitals. She ordered that the state come up with a plan to add more beds for defendants who are too mentally ill to assist with their own defense.

Additionally, the state’s mental hospitals battled critical staff shortages, including psychiatrists. A federal audit last year cited understaffing as a contributing factor to patient safety concerns at Western. The hospital was notified in the fall that it risked losing federal funding if problems weren’t fixed. That led departing DSHS Secretary Kevin Quigley to stop expansion intended to meet Pechman’s mandate.

Quigley has said the state doesn’t pay enough to attract and keep doctors, psychologists, nurses and social workers. And, he’s said, it will take more money to open up new beds.

While lawmakers did boost spending on the hospitals in July, it hasn’t been enough to erase the problems.

Western and Eastern continue their efforts to hire as many staff as possible to maintain patient and staff safety on the wards, DSHS spokeswoman Norah West said in an email Monday.

“While our preference is always to hire permanent state employees, we will continue to make use of contract staff as needed to ensure adequate levels of patient care are provided until permanent staff can be hired,” she said.

Gov. Jay Inslee, in his proposed 2016 supplemental budget, calls for boosting salaries of hospital personnel, hiring additional nurses and opening up 64 new beds for assessing those experience acute mental health crisis. Those three initiatives will cost roughly $25 million.

The report received by lawmakers Jan. 19 lays out the situation. It says roughly 325 applicants completed new employee orientation at Western in 2015 but 125 of them quit during the year. Vacancies in the nursing department averaged just over 10 percent for permanent positions and over 26 percent for non-permanent and on-call positions. That’s compelled Western to contract with temporary personnel to fill the spots.

“We funded a lot in the budget last year. We did everything that was asked of us and it doesn’t feel like we moved the needle,” Jinkins said.

Without a good model for staffing at Western, it’s hard for lawmakers to know how to best “drive our dollars” to help, she said. The proposed committee could certainly help, she said. “Whatever we can do we ought to do.”

House Minority Leader Dan Kristiansen, R-Snohomish, said Monday said bipartisan concern about how the money is spent is inciting interest in the bill.

“If we’re going to restore accountability in government, we need to put a third party in there to be our eyes and ears, to figure out what’s going on and to let us know,” he said.

“I don’t want to put good money into a bad operating system and I think everybody agrees it is a bad operating system.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623;

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