Lawmakers blame Western State Hospital managers for problems

SEATTLE (AP) - The head of a legislative accountability committee blamed a state health agency Wednesday for the crisis at Washington's largest psychiatric hospital.

The agency blamed Western State Hospital's problems on its inability to hire enough staff, and hospital employees blamed the Legislature for cutting funds over the years.

"The only problem with Western State Hospital is the house is burning down," Matt Zuvich, chairman of the Washington Federation of State Employees, told the Senate panel.

He went on to commend the Accountability and Reform Committee for giving the problem a "kick in the pants."

The 800-plus bed Lakewood psychiatric facility is under threat of losing funding by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services after inspections found numerous safety violations, including six "immediate jeopardy" findings in November. An Associated Press investigation found assaults on staff have resulted in tens of thousands of days of missed work and millions in medical costs.

State officials on Friday submitted a plan to the federal agency that outlines how they will fix the violations. The hospital has until March 1 to implement the changes or lose millions of federal dollars.

Now that the Legislature is back in session and more state funds have been requested, lawmakers have called hearings to find out what's going on. So far, they're not happy.

Carla Reyes, assistant secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services' behavioral health division, detailed the violations, including a lack of infection control and patient safety concerns. Committee Chairman Sen. Mark Miloscia pressed her for the "root causes of all these findings."

"Largely we see a breakdown in staffing," Reyes said.

"Throwing the state employees under the bus is not the answer," replied Miloscia, R-Federal Way. "Your office failed to manage Western State Hospital. What have you changed in your office to make sure that doesn't happen again?"

Reyes said she's "out there every day" and is using every resource she has to fix the problems.

When Miloscia asked about the hospital's quality assurance team, Reyes said it doesn't have one.

"Even though it's been state law since 2005?" Miloscia asked. "When do you plan to have one?"

Reyes said they've been focusing on the "crisis at the hospital" but hope to develop a team in the next year.

Kathy Seifert, a psychiatric social worker at the facility, testified that the hospital has had a staffing shortage for a long time, and it's currently "the worst ever."

"Both Western and Eastern state hospitals have been severely underfunded by the state for years," she said.

Understaffing means people don't have time for training, get moved around, cannot quell crisis situations quickly, and must work overtime, she said.

"We are continuing to lose staff because they can be paid much more in the private sector," she said.

Gov. Jay Inslee's budget proposal includes more staff as well as pay increases for hospital workers.

Some House lawmakers responded to the concerns Wednesday by introducing a bill that creates a legislative state hospital authority. The authority would consult with lawmakers on funding and policy issues at the state hospitals.

credit: Associated Press

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