Overhauling Washington state’s troubled mental health care system is a top priority this legislative session, although there is not a bipartisan agreement for how to pay for it, key lawmakers said Thursday.
“This is a problem we have to address,” said Sen. Keith Wagoner, R-Sedro Woolley. “It’s gotten ahead of us and we have to start taking a bite out of that apple now. I think there is broad agreement within the legislature that this is a top priority, so I think we are going to get a lot done.”
House Speaker Frank Chopp, D-Seattle, said he’ll focus on adding more mental health workers and finding ways to find housing for those who have received treatment.
“It’s one thing to treat somebody if they have a substance abuse disorder or a mental illness. If they have nowhere to go, they die on the street; that’s what it boils down to,” said Chopp, who also backed construction of a new Western State Hospital.
A new 500-bed state hospital probably would be built on the Western State Hospital campus, said Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma. Funding to get the design work started could be included in the capital budget this year, she added, with construction years away.
Wagoner and Chopp made their remarks at the Associated Press’ legislative preview in Olympia. The legislature convenes Monday for its 105-day session.
How to pay for overhauling the mental health system may prove to be the biggest challenge, Democratic and Republican lawmakers said.
In his 2019-21 budget proposal, Gov. Jay Inslee has 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, among several other items.
Inslee, a Democrat exploring a run for president, has called for a tax on capital gains earnings and higher tax rates for businesses that provides services, including attorneys and accountants.
At Thursday’s legislative preview, he defended those proposed tax increases and discussed the the need to reform the state’s mental health system.
“All of us know that we can and must make improvements for the behavioral health of our citizens,” Inslee said.
He added that it’s critical for the state to increase the number of people who get mental health services and for government to change the method of care by providing services to people closer to where they live and work.
“This is the modern way to provide behavioral health services, and we intend to transform the system,” Inslee said.
Inslee said the state needs $3.7 billion in new revenue to pay for that change, continue existing state services, boost spending on K-12 education and address homelessness and climate change, among several other priorities. His proposed $54.4 billion operating budget would be about a 20 percent increase from the budget that the legislature adopted two years ago and the governor signed into law.
Despite their support for making major changes to the mental health care system, some Republican legislators on Thursday drew the line at the tax increases Inslee has proposed. Democrats control both chambers, and while some key leaders were supportive of the governor’s tax proposals, they said it’s too early to discuss whether they are needed to cover the state’s priorities.
Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said he’s not seen any support among his colleagues for a capital gains tax or raising business tax rates for services. House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said the legislature needs to be “very cautious” in how much it increases spending in the state budget as a possible economic recession looms.
“We need to dial into the most important priorities,” Wilcox said.
Chopp, who has said he will step down as Speaker after this year’s session, said the state needs a new facility to replace Western State Hospital in Lakewood.
“It’s got severe problems with the age of the building and the problems with the actual physical construction of the building that leads people to be able to hang themselves. That cannot be tolerated,” he said.
The state also needs to make sweeping changes in how patients receive care, Chopp added.
“The bulk of this should be in the community where local communities, working with the state to provide funding, to find facilities,” he said.
As part of his mental health reform package, Inslee has called for adding hundreds of beds for those who are committed through civil courts. The goal, the governor said, is to reserve Western State Hospital and Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake for patients who receive treatment based on a criminal case.