SEATTLE — Eastern State Hospital, the second largest psychiatric facility in Washington, is working on hiring more staff and stabilizing the hospital after a challenging past year that threatened its federal accreditation.
The hospital came under particular scrutiny after a patient was killed by another patient in March 2022. Along with endemic staff shortages, this led to a warning from The Joint Commission, a national nonprofit organization that accredits health institutions. Joint Commission officials visited Eastern State Hospital again in late April.
At this point, Eastern State remains accredited. The latest 2023 Joint Commission report, posted May 4, details specifics that are still based on a reporting period of 2020-21. (Reporting was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and a fuller report is expected in June, according to the commission.)
The hospital, which has around 300 patients but room for 367, mainly from jails in Central and Eastern Washington, received high marks for discharging adult patients with appropriate antipsychotic medication and for limiting hours of physical restraint for adult and elder patients.
However, the hospital was below target for its hours of seclusion of adults and patients that are 65 and older. (The report says it didn’t report some measures because there weren’t enough patients for comparison purposes.)
“We want things to be perfect, and we know that perfection is very, very difficult to achieve,” said hospital CEO Eric Carpenter, who joined last year. “But we at least want to mark up to being somewhat excellent. This [is] the opportunity for that.”
Following overall trends in the behavioral health field, Eastern State has struggled to find workers: It has an overall vacancy rate between 33%-34%. That rate is higher for direct care staff like nurses and sits between 40%-42%.
Last year, the hospital made a concerted effort to hire travel nurses to help with staffing shortages. Hospitals across the country have turned to travel nurses — who move between hospitals on shorter-term assignments and are often paid more than staff positions — to help fill staffing gaps, but the solution is often costly. According to the Department of Social and Health Services, Eastern State is paying an average of $3.4 million per month on travel nurses.
“We’re not as stressed as we were before,” said Nancy Cruse, who worked at Eastern State Hospital for 10 years and serves as the president of WFSE Local 782, the union representing medical staff.
“Honestly, we’ve got a good routine going,” she said. Even though travel nurses only stay for around 30 to 180 days, preventing deeper trust and relationships with patients, it’s been a big help, she added.
“At least there’s bodies here.”
Starting July 1, workers will also see a significant raise under a new contract which includes two bonuses — one for employees who accepted a COVID booster vaccine and another as a retention bonus — with a 12% total raise for state hospital staff.
“We haven’t seen a raise like that in a long time,” Cruse said.
Eastern State Hospital officials also plan to host a job fair May 17 on campus, where they expect to hire staff on site, pending a background check.