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April 21, 2021

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In Our View: Symbol of Failed System

Western State’s loss of certification, funds an indictment of mental health care

The Columbian
Published:

A new federal report regarding Washington’s mental health care is a stinging indictment of a failing system.

A recent unannounced inspection by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has resulted in decertification of Western State Hospital near Tacoma, leading to a loss of funding for the state’s largest mental facility. The state will lose about $53 million in annual funding for the hospital, about 20 percent of its operating budget.

Preferably, we could deem the results a surprise; instead, they merely confirm that Washington is failing to adequately serve some of its most vulnerable citizens. Western State Hospital long has been plagued by issues ranging from unsafe conditions for patients and staff, escapes by dangerous patients, a lack of qualified staff, and a focus on bureaucracy rather than staff safety.

The problems predate the administration of Gov. Jay Inslee, but they have persisted during his 5 1/2 years in office. Throughout that time, Inslee has provided much rhetoric regarding the issues and the Legislature has provided much funding, but solutions have been missing. In recent years, lawmakers have poured more than $350 million into Western State Hospital and Eastern State Hospital near Spokane, along with more than $550 million in other spending for mental health.

In the wake of the funding loss, state Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, said: “While the loss of federal funding is incredibly problematic, today’s announcement should come as no surprise given the years of warnings and failure of the hospital’s leadership to correct a host of problems. Sadly, instead of solutions, we’ve seen continual management failures and a lack of long-term vision.”

Recently, Inslee announced plans to reduce the number of civilly committed patients at the state hospitals. The idea is to transfer those patients to community facilities to be created throughout the state while leaving the main hospitals primarily for patients in the criminal justice system. The proposal, while short on details and funding, has merit. But the latest report demonstrates that the administration has been focusing on the trees rather than the forest. Lingering issues at Western State require the utmost attention.

Among the problems found during last month’s inspection, according to the Associated Press, was a failure to identify and remove materials that could be used by patients to strangle themselves. The report said the state has made “significant strides” in addressing some previously identified shortcomings, but those improvements were not enough for Western State to qualify for continued funding.

State officials say they will make up for the loss of federal funds — a necessary but costly outcome. But considering the amount of money that has been contributed to the system in recent years, it is clear that funding is not the problem.

Even more disconcerting than the financial impact is Washington’s failure to care for its citizens. Adequate mental health facilities are a reflection of a society’s attention to its neediest people, are an essential part of family services, and are a pillar of the criminal justice system. Despite warnings delivered in court rulings and by previous inspections, the state has been unable to meet its duties in those regards.

This week’s loss of certification and funding might have been expected by those who have closely followed the issue. And still it stings as an embarrassment for the state government.

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