Gov. Jay Inslee praised employees at Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake on Friday for drastically reducing patient wait times, while encouraging health workers at a later stop to show support for his budget proposal.
Speaking before several hundred hospital employees, Inslee complimented the hospital for meeting a federal court deadline last May to evaluate criminal defendants with suspected mental illnesses within seven days.
“People get better at Eastern State Hospital because of your work,” he said.
The court ruling came after a lawsuit by Disability Rights Washington alleging the hospital was violating criminal defendants’ due process rights by warehousing them in jail when some needed mental health care. An initial January 2016 deadline to reduce wait times was extended last year after both state hospitals failed to comply.
Eastern State CEO Dorothy Sawyer said the hospital had opened 27 new evaluation beds and has been at or below the seven-day target since July.
“It’s the right thing to do and we did it,” she said, drawing cheers from employees.
The state budget passed in 2015 included more than $40 million in additional funding for compliance, mostly for hiring new hospital staff. The state also approved significant pay raises last summer for psychiatric nurses and other staff to make state hospital jobs more competitive.
“We have finally given you the tools to do the job,” Inslee said.
Speaking later Friday to a group of medical and health sciences students and administrators from Spokane universities, Inslee praised Washington State University’s new medical school as an economic development program that would create jobs in biotechnology and health care. Training providers in Spokane also will help with staffing problems at state hospitals, he said.
“We do not have enough psychiatrists,” he said, adding there’s a national shortage of other psychiatric health workers.
Western State Hospital is struggling to meet demand for evaluations, largely because demand for them has risen faster than capacity. To deal with that problem, Inslee’s budget proposal includes funding for law enforcement diversion programs designed to keep people with mental illnesses out of jail, and funding for community resources to allow for the discharge of patients who are ready to leave state hospitals but still need some level of care.
He urged staff members to contact their legislators and support those programs.
Steve Einhaus told Inslee he was a patient at Eastern State Hospital nearly 20 years ago, when he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He thought his life was over, but he was able to find medications and support strategies that worked for him during a six-month stay. Eastern hired him a decade ago to work as a peer specialist, helping others with mental illnesses.
Inslee encouraged Eastern State staff to share their stories of seeing people get better with community members to combat the misconception that people enter state mental hospitals and never come out.
“It really is a powerful misconception,” he said.