Western State Hospital has added hundreds of new workers and improved safety measures and treatment. But time is running out for improvements at the psychiatric hospital before a high-stakes review by the federal government.
LAKEWOOD — Western State Hospital has hired hundreds of new workers, added safety measures and increased treatment for patients as it works to improve care at the troubled psychiatric facility, state officials said.
Gov. Jay Inslee and hospital CEO Cheryl Strange touted the gains Tuesday, almost a year to the day after the escape from Western State of two patients — one an accused murderer — that prompted a large-scale manhunt.
That high-profile security lapse led to the firing of the hospital CEO and the appointment soon after of Strange. Meanwhile, since 2015, the hospital has remained at risk of losing its federal certification and $64 million in federal funding due to staff shortages and other issues.
Doors throughout the hospital have been rekeyed, after a review last year found thousands of keys missing, Strange said Tuesday. Security personnel are making more rounds on the sprawling campus, she said, “checking the windows, the doors.”
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The chronically short-staffed hospital has added more workers, according to Inslee, allowing for safer conditions and more treatment for patients.
Western State also is working to discharge patients who are ready to leave but remain at the hospital because of a lack of bed space in the community, Inslee said.
“It is a place that has made very substantial improvement in the last several months,” he said.
Recent data show an increase in some front-line, patient-care positions compared to last spring.
As of early March, the hospital employed 326 registered nurses across three different job classes, Western State data show. That’s an increase from last May, when 258 registered nurses were working in those same job classes.
Likewise, the hospital in March employed 147 counselors across two job classes, up from 112 in May last year.
While some other job classes saw declines in staffing, the data show an overall increase in permanent, front-line care workers. Still, 11 percent of permanent, front-line positions remained unfilled, the March hospital data show.
That includes about one in four psychiatrist positions — roughly the same as last spring.
“Our shortage of psychiatrists still remains a daunting challenge for us,” Inslee said.
In autumn 2015, a federal inspection found that conditions at Western State were so severe they threatened patient safety.
In response, the state last spring inked a 13-month improvement agreement with the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
The clock is ticking and the stakes are high.
Federal inspectors could return at any time, according to Strange, and the hospital could lose its certification and federal money if it doesn’t pass muster.
She declined to speculate how Western State would perform in such a review.
“That is a difficult question to answer right now,” Strange said, adding later: “I do not want to take a guess at that.”
Inslee sought to use his appearance at the hospital Tuesday to pressure Senate Republicans to support proposed state worker raises. The GOP’s proposed 2017-19 state operating budget would largely reject negotiated and arbitrated union contracts, which include some hefty raises for Western State employees.
Some of those raises have already taken effect as part of the broader effort to address the staffing shortage there.
Instead, the Republican plan would offer a less costly set of pay hikes, in the form of two $500 raises for most state workers.
Inslee warned that anything rolling back the progress in hiring and retaining workers would send Western State back into a downward spiral.
“If the Legislature does not continue to allow us to fix that problem,” Inslee said, “this institution’s going to collapse again.”
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia and the chief GOP budget writer, said he was concerned that some of the raises were put into effect before the Legislature could approve them. And he said mental-health funding in the Republican proposal seeks to improve the mental-health system over the long term.
“I don’t think he can question our commitment to mental health,” Braun said. “It’s right there in our budget.”