OLYMPIA — As challenges mount at Western State Hospital, impatient state lawmakers are looking to influence what reforms are needed to protect workers and bolster patient safety at the psychiatric hospital.
A bipartisan group of eight lawmakers drawn from the House and Senate is examining the funding, staffing and operating issues facing the 800-bed facility in Lakewood as well as the smaller 237-bed Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake.
The lawmakers serve on the newly created Select Committee on Improving Quality in State Hospitals. Their task is to suggest ways to deal with problems that led to the escape of a mentally ill suspected murderer in April and put Washington’s largest psychiatric hospital at risk of losing tens of millions of federal funds next month.
Their duties, outlined in a new state law, include weighing in on the selection of consultants to study the financing of the state hospital system, the levels and roles of hospital staff, the size and safety requirements of wards, and the clinical care models for treating patients.
They’ll also make recommendations to Gov. Jay Inslee on how to spend $6.8 million allotted to the new Behavioral Health Innovation Fund. Under provisions in the state budget, those dollars must be spent to improve the quality of care, safety for patients and staff, and the efficiency of operations at the two psychiatric hospitals.
“The entire thing with Western State Hospital is we need to clean it up, make it run well and provide additional care for patients when they are released,” state Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, said Friday. She is one of the committee’s co-leaders and chairwoman of the Senate Health Care Committee.
“This is a valuable facility for Western Washington,” she said. “We need to pay close attention to requirements coming from CMS (Centers for Medicine &Medicaid Services), but most importantly, keep the patients at the center of our discussion.”
The Democratic and Republican lawmakers spent the inaugural meeting April 29 getting briefed on the multiple fronts on which the psychiatric hospital workers and their bosses in the Department of Social and Health Services administration are battling every day.
At one point in the meeting, Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, the other committee leader, said the panel could benefit from a chart showing how all the pieces fit together and where they might not.
“I worry greatly,” she began, that the committee could inadvertently take an approach that “runs something off the rails.”
Among the updates, committee members learned of a fresh attempt to prevent the loss of millions of dollars in Medicare and Medicaid funding to Western State Hospital.
A federal audit of the hospital last year uncovered situations that caused serious harm to patients, placed the health and safety of all patients at risk as well as the safety of workers. It cited understaffing as a contributing factor and set a deadline for the state to remedy problems or the funding would go away.
CMS is prepared to terminate payments June 3 but won’t if it can negotiate an agreement with the state on specific improvements in areas such as security, safety and staffing. That deal must set a timeline for compliance. Talks are under way but no agreement has been completed.
“It’s an optimistic position we’re in today,” acting DSHS secretary Pat Lashway told the panel. “They want to believe we can do this.”
Lawmakers said they do, too. But they also are frustrated at the persistent troubles even after they’ve provided the hospital with millions of additional dollars in the past two years.
Sen. Andy Hill, R-Redmond, who wrote the law establishing this select committee, is not one of its members but did attend part of the meeting.
“I want to keep close tabs on this work,” he said. “I have real concerns about the way Western State Hospital is run.”
He’s confident this committee will be able to influence the conversations on what needs to change at the embattled institution. Its members are among the leading legislative voices on health care and human service policies in both chambers.
“You’ve got people who are very interested and have the capacity to drive and lead on this issue,” he said. “It is a very hot topic. It needs to be addressed. There are a lot of people who are impatient and want to act.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org.