OLYMPIA — David Holt, who led Washington’s largest psychiatric facility through a turbulent and a pivotal few years as the state began an ambitious transformation of its treatment services, is stepping down.
Holt since 2018 has been CEO of Western State Hospital, the 857-bed state-run facility in Lakewood, Pierce County, that in many ways is the nerve center for Washington’s mental-health system. His last day will be May 7.
The change at Western State’s top role comes as lawmakers and Gov. Jay Inslee implement a plan to move many patients committed to the hospital by a civil judge to new facilities around the state.
Meanwhile, lawmakers this year are working to fund a new facility on Western State’s grounds so it can continue to handle patients coming from the criminal system.
Holt’s time as CEO began in 2018 as federal regulators decertified the hospital for a host of safety and health issues.
That decertification — which cost the state $53 million in annual federal funding — came despite years of efforts by Inslee and state officials, and hundreds of millions of dollars spent trying to keep the facility certified.
Since then, Holt led safety initiatives to reduce violence at what has been known as one of the most dangerous workplaces in Washington, and oversaw the construction of new wards. Then, this past year, Holt led the facility through the COVID-19 pandemic, which claimed the lives of three patients.
“I feel like I’m going out where I made my maximum contribution to the hospital,” said Holt, adding later: “It’s all about patients … on my watch, I believe I’ve done everything I can to keep them safe, secure.”
Holt touted those efforts to improve safety in a place where patient-on-patient and patient-on-staff assaults are common.
Under the safety initiatives, staff were given additional crisis training, he said, the hospital added more security guards, and nurses stations on some wards were enclosed for better protection.
The hospital last year also opened a special ward to treat the most violent patients.
In a statement, state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS), which oversees Western State, attributed those measures to “an 8.7% reduction in patient-to-staff and patient-to-patient assaults in 2020.”
In a statement, DSHS Secretary Cheryl Strange credited Holt for helping to “lead the mission to transform the hospital” and said “his dedication and compassion are unprecedented and we wish him all the best in this well-deserved new chapter in his life.”
Holt, who came to Western State in December 2015 as the facility’s chief operating officer, previously worked in mental health in California, including at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ hospital system.
On Wednesday, DSHS named Charles Southerland as the hospital’s interim CEO while state officials conduct a search for the position.
Southerland has been the hospital’s deputy CEO since 2018. Before that, he held a variety of positions both at the hospital and at the Department of Corrections over the past three decades.
Wednesday’s appointment makes Southerland the first person of color to lead the hospital, according to a spokesperson for the DSHS.
Washington House and Senate lawmakers, along with Inslee this year have proposed $51 million for the design and preparation to build a new so-called forensic hospital on Western State’s campus.
The goal is to get that newer facility certified with regulators and regain annual federal funding, said Holt, who added that “I’m excited for the future of this hospital.”