The recent expansion of private psychiatric hospitals in Washington has helped fill a dire need for mental-health treatment.
But a series of investigative reports by The Seattle Times has revealed these new institutions also have failed vulnerable patients in ways mostly invisible to the public and even to regulators.
On Episode 120 of The Overcast, The Seattle Times’ politics podcast, reporter Daniel Gilbert explains what his reporting over the course of the past year uncovered — and what the state is doing to fix some of the problems at the hospitals.
Gilbert’s reporting relied heavily on documents, obtained both through public-records requests (he filed some 180 of them) and provided by sources.
Among his findings:
- A lack of adequate staffing plagued some of the hospitals, putting patient and staff safety at risk, including at Smokey Point Behavioral Hospital in Marysville. Gov. Jay Inslee spoke at the facility’s ribbon-cutting in 2017, but soon after it opened, staffing problems led nurses to have to make choices on making rounds versus holding therapy sessions. “There was always something that fell by the wayside,” Gilbert says.
- There have been far more assaults and other serious incidents at six private psychiatric hospitals in Western Washington than previously known. While the hospitals reported 15 incidents to the state, Gilbert discovered at least 350 injuries, deaths, attempted suicides and other such incidents.
- State regulators, meanwhile, haven’t taken an enforcement action against a private psychiatric hospital in more than 13 years despite finding repeated and serious violations at some facilities.
At one Tukwila hospital, Gilbert says, there were so many police calls the local police chief declared the facility a “chronic nuisance” property.
The Seattle Times’ reporting — including posting results of inspections — provided a previously unavailable window for families considering treatment options for loved ones. Unlike other states, Washington has not made such information available online.
“I was getting these reports through public-records requests and seeing ‘wow this is a very, very serious issue.’ If I were sending a family member there, or considering treatment, these are things that conceivably I would want to know about,” Gilbert says.
Gilbert’s reporting has had results: Inslee ordered the state Department of Health to strengthen oversight of the private psychiatric hospitals.
This episode was recorded at the Seattle studios of 88.5 FM KNKX with the help of KNKX reporter Simone Alicea.
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