The proposals range from boosting mental-health monitoring and counseling in schools to building more treatment facilities and attracting more qualified workers. The announcement reinforces pledges by lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee to confront a continuing crisis in Washington's mental-health system.
FIFE, PIERCE COUNTY — Standing outside a residential treatment center, a trio of GOP state senators unveiled proposals Wednesday to improve Washington’s system for treating people who suffer from mental illness and chemical dependency.
The proposals range from boosting mental-health monitoring and counseling in schools to building more treatment facilities and attracting more qualified workers.
The announcement reinforces pledges by lawmakers in both parties, along with Gov. Jay Inslee, to confront what has been a continuing crisis in Washington’s mental-health system.
Recent high-profile assaults at Western State Hospital — including one this week, in which a patient choked a nurse and bit off part of her ear — have again highlighted the plight of Washington’s largest psychiatric facility.
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After giving the state more than two years to correct a host of issues there, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid this year decertified the hospital, which is located in Lakewood. That move cost the state $53 million in annual federal funding.
Meanwhile, patients with mental-health problems experience long waits to get admitted and treated at Western State, and can wind up staying in hospitals or jails. Other patients inside the hospital can’t get discharged because there are no places in the community for them to live.
“We have a real problem here, and frankly, it’s going to take years to fix,” Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia said at Wednesday’s news conference. He added later: “Treating folks in jails and hospitals is not humane, not effective.”
The proposals offered Wednesday are expected to become bills for the legislative session that starts in January. It’s unclear how much they might cost, but lawmakers and Inslee have said they are committed to a serious investment in mental-health services.
Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-University Place discussed a bill that would create a new court-authorized guardianship to allow family members to help people suffering from addiction or mental-health issues. Among other things, that plan would allow those guardians to require people with problems to get treatment.
“We need to empower parents and other loved ones to have the authority to rescue that adult child, who needs that care and is not getting it,” said O’Ban. “We don’t have a system right now.”
O’Ban also announced a bill to combat the persistent lack of qualified mental-health workers — like psychiatrists and nurse practitioners — to staff Western State Hospital and residential treatment facilities. That proposal includes provisions to make it easier for certified workers from other states to move to Washington and get quickly qualified to work here.
A third proposal by O’Ban would provide a transition plan for the ambitious goal lawmakers and Inslee have pitched to move most of the civilly committed patients out of Western State Hospital and its sister facility, Eastern State Hospital. Those patients would be moved into yet-to-be-built facilities around the state.
A proposal by Sen. Randi Becker, R-Eatonville, would help identify children in schools starting in the eighth or ninth grade who might have emotional or addiction troubles. That bill would boost training for school workers, from bus drivers and teachers and food-service workers, to help identify children having problems and refer them to a counselor.
“And then, in turn, they get some treatment,” said Becker.
Meanwhile, Braun discussed his plan — which stems from a bill that stalled this year — to ask Washington voters to authorize $500 million in bonds to build the new mental-health facilities around the state.
That bill, Senate Bill 6468, had bipartisan support, including from co-sponsor Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle. Whether that or another approach is used to to build those facilities, Frockt said those new facilities need to get funded.
In addition to community-treatment facilities, lawmakers must fund what are known as supportive-housing beds, said Frockt. Such beds would be used for people with severe mental-health issues, such as some who can’t currently be discharged from Western State Hospital. “All of these things are going to be in the mix,” he said.