OLYMPIA – The bipartisan Select Committee on Quality in State Hospitals has agreed on preliminary recommendations for improving Washington’s mental health care system.
The eight legislators on the committee sent a letter to Governor Inslee on Friday detailing information they hope will serve as a framework for future policy proposals.
“After hearing from experts and studying the data, it’s evident much has to be done to improve the availability of mental health services for our families, friends and neighbors,” said committee co-chair Rep. Laurie Jinkins (D – Tacoma). “Care in our state mental hospitals has been negatively impacted by staff shortages, lack of community-based services and outmoded mental health practices. I am excited we have bipartisan agreement on an approach to addressing these issues.”
Preliminary recommendations include:
• Prioritizing capacity at state hospitals for forensic rather than civil commitments
• Creating capacity for inpatient psychiatric care in community settings for most civil commitments
• Exploring diversion strategies that reduce the need for inpatient treatment
Legislation passed in 2016 established the committee, a result of efforts to fix safety and capacity issues at the two state-run psychiatric hospitals. State budget cuts in previous years contributed to many of these issues, but Washington’s model of utilizing large psychiatric hospitals for long-term inpatient mental health treatment is also an outdated one.
“The patient must be our primary focus in any process to improve conditions at Western State Hospital,” said committee co-chair Sen. Randi Becker (R-Eatonville). “Treatment should be more accessible so mental illness doesn’t lead to crimes and civil commitments. Early intervention, which could be done through telemedicine, will make a huge difference for patients and their families.”
Over the last two sessions, the Legislature has put more funding into mental health care for new patient beds, increased staffing at hospitals, and reduced wait times for psychiatric evaluations. A new CEO was also hired at Western State Hospital earlier this year. But more needs to be done to move away from the large hospital model and help patients move more efficiently through the system.
“While the state put more funding into mental health over the last several years, Western State Hospital continued to fail inspections. Staffing levels suffered, patient treatment standards were compromised and safety issues continued to escalate, both in the hospital and the community. Adequate funding is essential but even more important are meaningful reforms,” Becker said.
The committee’s work will continue this year after the legislative session concludes.
“Patients, mental health workers, and the public deserve a 21st Century mental health system that keeps people safe and supports recovery. We look forward to continue working with the governor on the proposals and policies to get us there. Now we have a foundation to move forward.” Jinkins said.