Washington has hired a little over 200 employees to staff a Tukwila psychiatric hospital the state bought in August for nearly $30 million, according to Jo Sahlin, a spokesperson for the newly-named Olympic Heritage Behavioral Health Hospital.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony to formally open Olympic Heritage on Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee said he wanted the hospital to be a “recruiting tool” for the mental health profession. In recent years, the state has struggled to keep its psychiatric hospitals sufficiently staffed, leading to employees at the hospital raising safety concerns for both patients and staff.
“We don’t want to lose people in your profession,” Inslee told Olympic Heritage staff and state Department of Social and Health Services employees at the ceremony.
Before the state’s purchase, the hospital, formerly named Cascade Behavioral Health Hospital, was one of the largest privately-owned behavioral health facilities in the state before abruptly closing in July. During Cascade’s closure, the hospital announced it would be laying off 288 employees.
The Cascade Behavioral Health Hospital purchase is expected to add 100 new beds for patients committed to state hospitals. Officials said this should free up beds for people in jail awaiting competency services. The state has already started moving patients into the hospital.
“This happened so quickly. Carpe diem, carpe olympic,” Inslee said, earning some laughs. “We seized that moment to get people in here as fast as we can.”
Sahlin said around half of the new hires are former Cascade employees. Some were also brought in from the state’s two other adult psychiatric hospitals.
The state Department of Social and Health Services held a job fair on August 17, shortly after acquiring the hospital. The department hired 150 people on that one day, said the department’s secretary, Jilma Meneses, who called the pace “unprecedented.”
“There were lines out the door of people wanting to get in here and work,” Meneses said.
Agency spokespeople said the fair was targeted toward recruiting former Cascade employees, though the agency said they would not be prioritized in the hiring process.
The union representing former Cascade employees filed suit to stall the facility’s sale in August, arguing that the state should prioritize hiring all of the hospital’s former employees under the union’s contract with Cascade. U.S. District Judge Barbara J. Rothstein denied the union’s request for a preliminary injunction on the sale in October and indicated the union was unlikely to win the case.
Sahlin said the staff hired are currently sufficient for the two wards open in the hospital but declined to say how many more staff the agency is looking to hire. The pace of opening wards and hiring more people will depend on funding from the Legislature in the upcoming supplemental budget session, they said.