Matt Driscoll

Badly needed Tacoma psychiatric hospital’s beds empty; accreditation effort on ‘pause’

When the new $41 million Wellfound Behavioral Health Hospital celebrated its grand opening in May, the many elected officials from the city, county who had championed its construction celebrated the achievement.

The hospital — which includes 120 behavioral health beds, paid for in part by millions in public money — was supposed to help remedy a long-standing, critical deficiency in Tacoma and Pierce County.

Four months later, the hospital is empty.

Recently, Wellfound made the decision to halt admissions entirely, hospital officials confirmed to The News Tribune this week.

For a facility that was built to address a pressing community need, it’s the latest chapter in a expanding saga that has created an air of uncertainty around the project.

It’s also a tenor that stands in stark contrast to the excitement that accompanied Wellfound’s arrival.

In an Aug. 27, 2018 memo to the Alliance for South Sound Health, CEO Maureen Womack explained the name bestowed upon the new behavioral health hospital she had been chosen to lead.

The joint venture between Multicare and CHI Franciscan would be called Wellfound, Womack said.

Wellfound, Womack wrote, is “a nautical term that conveys a sense of readiness, of having all the tools and supplies necessary for a safe voyage.”

What Womack’s upbeat note to supporters — including Pierce County officials — couldn’t foreshadow was the unexpectedly rough waters ahead as Wellfound worked to open its 120 beds to patients.

In retrospect, any sense of “readiness” now seems misplaced.

Since opening in May, the hospital has struggled to obtain important safety accreditation from the independent, nonprofit Joint Commission.

While the accreditation is optional, without it, Wellfound is largely unable to bill for services, including from insurance providers like Medicaid and Medicare.

Last month, after The News Tribune reported on the suicide death of Kevan Carter Jr. — a 29-year-old Wilson High School grad who repeatedly sought help for depression at Wellfound — the hospital put a “temporary hold” on admissions to its six-bed crisis stabilization unit.

At the time, Wellfound’s decision left just eight of the hospital’s 120 beds open to patients.

While those eight beds technically remain open, Wellfound has no patients, the hospital acknowledged.

“While we hoped to be further along operationally at this time, this extra time is necessary to ensure Wellfound delivers the safe and quality behavioral health care our community needs,” the hospital said in a written statement provided to The News Tribune.

A decision to ‘pause’ accreditation

Wellfound officials have described achieving Joint Commission accreditation as a potentially lengthy “process.”

According to a Joint Commission spokesperson, that’s often true. A behavioral health hospital must be open before seeking Joint Commission accreditation, and it can take time.

But Wellfound’s journey is complicated.

The hospital confirmed to The News Tribune for the first time this week that in June, a month after opening, the hospital’s leadership elected to put the accreditation effort on “pause.”

That same month Womack, who had been on the job for only 18 months, was replaced by Matt Crockett, who now serves Wellfound’s acting CEO.

As The Seattle Times reported last month, Crockett arrived in Tacoma after a stint overseeing the Smokey Point Behavioral Hospital in Marysville.

While Wellfound declined to comment on Womack’s exit, the hospital has described Crockett as “a seasoned behavioral health leader” with “a proven track record in opening psychiatric hospitals as well as advancing through initial Joint Commission surveys.”

According to the hospital, the decision to pause accreditation allowed time for Wellfound “to make the changes needed and evaluate our processes and procedures to support our commitment to provide high-quality, safe care for the community.”

A spokesperson for the Joint Commission described the hospital’s decision to stop the accreditation process before it was completed as “ not entirely common.”

“In these cases organizations sometimes felt that they were not ready to undergo a survey,” the spokesperson added.

Wellfound, meanwhile, described the situation as par for the course.

“Over the past several months, Wellfound has proactively identified facility and system refinements that have already been implemented or are in the process of being completed. This includes observations made by The Joint Commission in June,” the hospital said in its statement to The News Tribune. “It is very common for hospitals to open and then identify and implement facility improvements.”

“Building a new behavioral health hospital is a complex project that requires a process of purposeful sequencing to open the hospital in phases,” the statement added.

While that might be true, Wellfound’s struggle to obtain Joint Commission accreditation has delayed the psychiatric hospital’s expected time line for fully opening.

Given MultiCare and CHI Franciscan’s involvement, it also has surprised many of the same Pierce County leaders who championed the project.

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier described the delay as a disappointment.

“Our community needs these resources. We need them now,” Dammeier told The News Tribune. “At the same time, it has to be done right.”

“I want Wellfound to be up and open and delivering high-quality care as soon as they can,” Dammeier continued. “But until they can assure the community that they’re delivering high-quality care, they’ve got to take care of business first.”

State Sen. Steve O’Ban, who also serves as senior council for behavioral health with Pierce County, echoed the sentiment.

“It’s unfortunate because the need is great,” O’Ban said. “That’s why I assume MultiCare and (CHI Franciscan) stepped forward to make the big investment in this facility, because our region has needed those inpatient beds for so long.”

“I want them (open) as soon as possible,” O’Ban continued. “The fact that it hasn’t must be extremely disappointing to CHI Franciscan and MultiCare.”

A work in progress

The News Tribune first published its story on Carter’s death on Aug. 9.

That evening, Crockett sent a memo to all 145 Wellfound employees.

In his note, Crockett described Carter Jr.’s suicide as” an immensely sad outcome that is difficult to accept or put into words.”

Meanwhile, acknowledging that the psychiatric hospital was working “on our readiness for the Joint Commission survey,” Crockett identified a long list of ongoing upgrades at the newly opened hospital, including efforts to improve patient care.

The work includes facility improvements like upgrading bathroom doors, reinstalling ice and juice machines, installing a smoke barrier in the main entrance lobby and improving the hospital’s documentation system and workflow.

Crockett’s letter also indicated that Wellfound needs to install “badge controls on certain doors in the (crisis stabilization unit) to reduce the elopement risks.”

This week, the hospital again confirmed the ongoing efforts to improve Wellfound. The work continues, utilizing “a contingency fund to cover additional costs and facility changes that are identified once the facility is open,” according to the hospital.

“No public funds are being allocated for this contingency fund or for these improvements,” the hospital added.

‘Full confidence’

Many Pierce County officials remain confident in Wellfound despite the unexpected delays and the frustration of watching a needed hospital open its doors only to stop admitting patients four months later.

Dammeier is among them, according to text messages between MultiCare President and CEO Bill Robertson and the county executive obtained by The News Tribune through a public records request.

In a Aug. 14 message, Robertson acknowledged the “difficulties we are having getting Wellfound Behavioral Health Hospital to the fully functioning state that we desire and our communities deserve.”

Robertson added that MultiCare and CHI (Franciscan) “are deeply committed to this work and I’m confident we will successfully deliver on our promises of expanded access to excellent behavioral health care.”

“I have full confidence the MultiCare/CHI team will get it done,” Dammeier responded, adding, “Disappointed some are taking the opportunity to throw rocks.”

In an interview with The News Tribune this week, Dammeier reiterated his faith in MultiCare and CHI Franciscan.

The Pierce County executive also sought to clarify his text message response to Robertson.

“I’m disappointed there has been some negativity swirling around this,” Dammeier explained. “You know me. My focus is on getting our community the care it needs.

“That is one of the reasons I believe in this partnership. Both MultiCare and (CHI Franciscan) have been in this community for decades, and they’ve been delivering care and addressing needs for decades. Does that mean it’s going to be without any hiccups? Certainly not.”

According to Wellfound, the hospital hopes to start admitting people to inpatient beds in the next month.

“Focusing on in-patient services,” the hospital said, “will allow Wellfound to have the largest impact in the shortest period of time as we navigate accreditation.”

At the same time, the hospital now expects Joint Commission surveyors to return to the hospital by the end of 2019.

Once accreditation is achieved, it plans to open the hospital in phases.

“While we would like to be fully operational immediately, that is not possible given the accreditation process and the necessary purposeful sequencing process, which is typical,” the hospital said. “Our focus continues to be on opening a facility that operates with high standards and best practices to ensure safe, and high-quality care for our community. We sincerely thank the community for their support and understanding as we work toward achieving accreditation status.”

According to Dammeier, the day can’t come soon enough.

“We needed it 10 years ago. We certainly need it today,” Dammeier said.

“So I want those rooms open and serving our community as soon as they can do so in a way that ensures quality care for our folks who are in mental health crisis.”

Matt Driscoll is a reporter and The News Tribune’s metro news columnist. A McClatchy President’s Award winner, Driscoll lives in Central Tacoma with his wife and three children. He’s passionate about the City of Destiny and strives to tell stories that might otherwise go untold.