After a crisis that ranged from the streets to the state’s psychiatric hospital, lawmakers are finally making some headway on a plan that should move the system forward in a compassionate and budget-conscious way.
Two projects at the heart of the bipartisan legislative proposal show lawmakers are serious about improving mental-health services across the state:
• A new 150-bed psychiatric teaching hospital at the University of Washington to partially replace outdated and troubled Western State Hospital. The 800-bed psychiatric hospital recently lost $53 million in federal Medicaid funding.
• A push, along with funding for the staffing and capital infrastucture, to move more behavioral health patients into community clinics across the state, to replace more beds at state hospitals over time.
Both the state House- and Senate-approved budgets also include nearly $70 million toward meeting a court-mandated timeline to improve access to mental-health treatment for people waiting in jail for competency evaluations.
Sen. Manka Dhingra, chair of the Behavioral Health Subcommittee, suggests these changes will shift Washington’s current mental-health system away from one just focused on emergency needs, rather than restoring or maintaining health. With care provided in emergency rooms, jails and state hospitals, human anguish is exacerbated. “It is not a system that is actually meeting the needs of patients,” the Redmond Democrat said.
At the center has been dysfunctional Western State Hospital, where a third of civil-commitment patients do not need that level of intensive care, but the state doesn’t have enough places to send them for help in their communities.
The crux of the problem is a shortage of both mental-health workers and facilities. Capital and operations budgets from the Senate and the House include millions for facilities, training, hiring and a sizable investment in the new UW mental-health hospital.
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, has proposed issuing $500 million in state bonds to dramatically increase Washington’s mental-health treatment capacity statewide. This creative plan has been added to the Senate capital budget proposal.
The state’s shortcomings in mental-health treatment will not be solved in one strategic budget year — even with investments totaling more than $250 million in the operating budget and at least $180 million in the capital budget for the new psychiatric hospital.
But these plans, finally, are a promising beginning.