After a relentless onslaught of bad news out of Western State Hospital, there’s finally some room for optimism: The psychiatric hospital in Lakewood is getting a long overdue change in leadership.
On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced he’s replacing Western State’s chief executive, Ron Adler, with veteran mental health administrator Cheryl Strange. The escapes last week of two patients – including a man accused of a horrific 2013 murder but deemed too mentally ill to stand trial – and unauthorized leaves by two others, were just the latest events convincing Inslee that Western State needed “a transformative culture change.” Adler has been CEO since July 2013.
It promises to be a daunting challenge for Strange, but on paper she seems to have the credentials suited to the task.
Most notably, she’s been an assistant director for the Department of Social and Health Services Mental Health Division, where her duties included oversight of daily operations at the state’s three psychiatric hospitals, including Western State.
On her watch, from 2006 to 2008, the hospital was in compliance with federal regulators – key to receiving $60 million in Medicaid funding. That money is endangered now in large part because regulators are so concerned about safety risks to staff and patients. Inspectors reported that during one four-month period, patients and staff were assaulted more than four times a day.
Western State is also facing scrutiny for staffing shortages, low morale and worker lawsuits. In the last 10 years, the state has paid out more than $2.3 million to workers who claimed retaliation for reporting harassment or workplace misconduct and $6 million in workers’ compensation claim due to injuries.
In an editorial board meeting Tuesday with House Democratic leaders, Tacoma state Rep. Laurie Jinkins said that Strange has a reputation for making improvements in a cost-effective way. When she was deputy secretary at the state Department of Corrections from 2008 to 2011, Strange improved health access, quality and outcomes for inmates even in the face of significant recession-related budget cuts.
In addition, her experience working with federal regulators and in the nonprofit field – as vice president of behavioral health with Seattle-based Pioneer Human Services – make her a sound choice to lead Western State, Jinkins added.
Let’s hope so. Inslee and state legislators have spent more than $135 million in recent years trying to improve the hospital, including $18 million in the last legislative session. The continuing failures have led many to wonder whether the state should funnel more of those resources into community-based mental health care rather than into large institutions like the 800-bed Western State.
That’s a discussion for another day. Job No. 1 for Strange is enhancing security to prevent more escapes. That’s already begun, but the confidence of Western State’s neighbors in Lakewood and Steilacoom has been badly rattled. Serious steps to keep the community safe must be taken.
Accused murderers like the one who escaped last week shouldn’t be able to pry open a window of a lower-security civil commitment ward and get out. The hospital is located next to a school and across the street from a heavily used park, which includes a playground and ballfields.
Strange also must convince federal regulators that her presence merits giving the state more time to reach compliance. Western State must retain its accreditation – and that crucial federal funding.