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State to pay another $3 million for mental health delays – fines could go up

In this file photo taken April 11, 2017, the entrance to Western State Hospital is seen in Lakewood, Wash. The Washington Legislature set aside money in 2015 to increase the number of “forensic” beds at the hospital, but the state has struggled to hire staff that would allow them to increase the number of patients or cut the wait times. That has resulted in lawsuits on behalf of mentally ill patients. (Elaine Thompson / AP)
In this file photo taken April 11, 2017, the entrance to Western State Hospital is seen in Lakewood, Wash. The Washington Legislature set aside money in 2015 to increase the number of “forensic” beds at the hospital, but the state has struggled to hire staff that would allow them to increase the number of patients or cut the wait times. That has resulted in lawsuits on behalf of mentally ill patients. (Elaine Thompson / AP)

After being hit with nearly $25 million in contempt fines for making inmates with mental health issues wait too long for evaluations, Washington may see future fines double.

Attorneys from Disability Rights Washington, which represents those patients in a lawsuit against the state, are asking U.S. District Court Judge Marsh Pechman to double the fines because the approximately $3 million per month the state is currently paying isn’t producing the desired result of reducing the wait.

In fact, in some instances the waits are getting longer, Emily Cooper, an attorney for the organization, said Friday.

“There’s no end in sight,” Cooper said.

Pechman will hold a hearing on the request to double the contempt fines in September.

In late 2014, Washington lost a federal lawsuit over the extended time some people with mental health issues who were arrested had to wait to be evaluated to see if they could stand trial. Pechman ruled the state was violating prisoners’ constitutional rights to due process. The extended waits, which sometimes caused them to be incarcerated for months, sometimes exacerbated their problems and made them less likely to eventually be able to stand trial.

The Legislature set aside money in 2015 to increase the number of “forensic” beds at Western State and Eastern State hospitals, but the state has struggled to hire staff that would allow them to increase the number of patients or cut the wait times.

“We have made some improvements but we still need to make more,” Kelly Stowe, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social and Health Services, said. While the department has added beds and staff, the number of patients has increased faster.

“We’re seeing some big spikes like we’ve never seen before,” Stowe said. Some planned expansions at Western State Hospital have been put on hold as a result of the state’s efforts to comply with an agreement with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. (Note: an earlier version of this story mischaracterized the reason for the delay.)

Some of the money the department needs to increase the number of patients it can evaluate is in the state’s capital construction budget, which is currently stalled in a disagreement between Senate Republicans and House Democrats over water rights legislation. A solution to that disagreement isn’t expected before September, at the earliest.

The state began falling behind on evaluations and other mental health services during the recession, when mental health programs were among those cut to balance the state budgets in the weak economy.

The state’s mental health treatment system is a big operation, and Disability Rights Washington understands it would take time to make the improvements, Cooper said.

“But we think 2 1/2 years is enough,” she said.