Republican senators said Friday there is bipartisan agreement on how to address the behavioral health crisis in Washington state, including studying whether to build a new — but smaller — Western State Hospital at the current site in Lakewood.
Gov. Jay Inslee has asked legislators to approve $7.5 million in the upcoming capital budget to do pre-design work on a new 500-bed state hospital to replace Western State. The governor has said he wants to close nearly all civil commitment beds at Western State and Eastern State Hospital near Spokane by 2023.
The two state psychiatric hospitals would continue to provide treatment to so-called “forensic” patients who are part of a criminal case or who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity.
Democrats who control both chambers of the Legislature plan to release their proposed two-year state budgets next week.
At a press conference, Sen. John Braun, the Centralia Republican who is the party’s ranking member on the budget-writing committee, said he sees support for moving forward with pre-design work for a 250-bed hospital that would be built on the grounds of the current Western State.
Controversy over possibly building the new hospital on the former Fort Steilacoom Golf Course has ruled out the 500-bed option, Braun said.
Building a smaller Western State would be “more cost-effective and faster,” Braun said.
“I think the pre-design language will be 250 is the footprint, but if the right number happens to be 300 or 350,” the state can adjust the size as construction gets closer, he said.
Braun’s comments were similar to those that Rep. Steve Tharinger, D-Sequim, made to The News Tribune in January. Tharinger, chairman of the House Capital Budget Committee, said the pre-design study could determine if any existing buildings could be used, perhaps lowering the number of beds needed for a new Western State to 200 to 300, thereby reducing its estimated $560 million cost.
Tharinger will discuss details of the House version of the capital budget bill on Monday, an aide said. House Democrats then also will release their versions of the operating and transportation budgets. Senate Democrats, who already have moved their transportation budget bill out of committee, plan to release their operating and capital budgets on March 29. The regular legislative session ends April 28.
An Inslee spokeswoman, Jaime Smith, said in an email: “The governor’s proposal was to study the 500-bed option, but we recognize legislators will be discussing various ideas and that’s all an expected part of the process.”
Inslee’s proposal calls for the new hospital to open in 2025.
On Wednesday, Lakewood City Manager John Caulfield sent an email to the state Department of Social and Health Services, which runs Western State, to reiterate the city’s position that the state should evaluate locations other than Lakewood for a new state hospital.
At Friday’s press conference, GOP senators focused much of their message on behavioral health.
“At a time of record revenue, we can prioritize mental health and drug treatment and make a real difference for our communities without having to raise taxes,” Sen. Hans Zeiger, R-Pyallup, said.
On Wednesday, the state Economic and Revenue Forecast Council released revised state revenue estimates. For the 2019-2021 budget, revenue is projected to increase by nearly $554 million. Total revenue for the upcoming state budget is estimated at nearly $50.6 billion.
Referring to the proposed two-year state operating budget that begins July 1, Braun said there needs to be an emphasis on adding more mental health workers, making the transition from large institutional settings to community facilities and developing housing so former mental health patients can successfully live on their own.
“All three of those areas are going to help us bend the curve away from patients having to be moved to the state hospital,” he said.
He added that there is bipartisan support to move civil patients into private nonprofit hospitals, but it will require legislators setting payment rates to cover the costs of those hospitals.
“It helps us move folks out of Western State or not put them there to begin with, and it helps us move those patients around the state, closer to their communities, closer to their families and closer to their doctors,” said Braun. “I think that is good for everyone. That is going to take a while.”
Braun is the lead sponsor of a bill to ask voters in November to approve $500 million in bonds to increase behavioral health services in community settings.
If the bill becomes law, Braun said he expects voters will approve the increased state borrowing because it will enable the state to build behavioral health facilities faster. Those projects would include evaluation and treatment centers, and transitional housing.
“I think (voters) will see this as a meaningful way to get after a problem that they feel in their lives. Increasingly, you can’t talk to anybody any longer who doesn’t have a family member, a friend or a co-worker who isn’t touched with mental health issues,” he said.
In his 2019-21 operating budget proposal, Inslee proposed boosting spending by $675 million to pay for new mental health beds in communities around the state, hire more mental health workers and offer long-term housing options to reduce the current shortage of beds.
The governor’s proposed capital budget calls for spending $110 million on grants to community hospitals and private health care providers to help them add beds, so civil patients don’t have to be sent to state hospitals and current patients can be released from them. That would add more than 500 beds, according to the Office of Financial Management.
The governor wants $22.6 million for pre-design and design work for nine smaller facilities around the state for mentally-ill patients who are committed through the civil court system. The proposals calls for four 16-bed and two 48-bed facilities, and three 150-bed facilities.
In addition, Inslee has proposed spending $33.5 million for infrastructure and buildings improvements at Western State and $46.5 million to address short-term bed shortages and add modern treatment space.
The federal government last year pulled annual funding of $53 million from Western State after the facility failed an inspection. Infractions included the restraint of a patient for hours without cause and an insufficient number of sprinklers in parts of the hospital. Western State said in 2016 it would make safety and qualify of care improvements to comply with federal standards.