Politics & Government

Inslee wants more money for staff at Western State Hospital

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee leaves the podium after talking about his proposed supplemental budget Thursday in Olympia.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee leaves the podium after talking about his proposed supplemental budget Thursday in Olympia. The Associated Press

Struggling to hire and keep staff to treat mentally ill patients, state government is giving raises to some of its most-sought-after workers.

A proposed 2016 supplemental budget outlined Thursday by Gov. Jay Inslee offers $10 million to cover the raises and other recruitment and retention incentives — some of which have already been given.

Inslee also wants money for 51 more registered nurses at Western State Hospital as he tries to shore up a mental-health system under fire from federal regulators over safety gaps and from courts over long waits for care.

“The hospitals are seriously understaffed,” the Democratic governor said, acknowledging “legitimate safety concerns.”

“It’s not just a litigation issue, it’s the fact that we want to keep our people safe, and I think it’s clear that we’ve got more work to do on that.”

10 percent Pay raises effective Dec. 1 for psychiatrists and some other doctors via assignment pay.

15 percent Raises Dec. 1 for some psychologists and psychiatric social workers via assignment pay.

Federal inspectors have tied a shortage of trained staff at Western State Hospital to recent violence and patient suicides. The 827-bed Lakewood psychiatric hospital averaged about four assaults a day against patients and staff during a recent period scrutinized by federal regulators, who are threatening to cut off funding starting March 1 if safety problems aren’t fixed.

Recent trouble filling vacancies and preventing turnover have worsened staffing shortages that appear to be chronic there. Records show 14.8 percent of jobs were vacant as of Sept. 25, six months into a heavy recruitment drive. By contrast, exactly one year earlier the vacancy rate was 7.5 percent, and at the same point in 2013 it was 6.4 percent.

According to federal inspection reports, 66 of 149 nursing employees hired between April and October have resigned.

Pay, safety and morale have all been cited as reasons for attrition.

“It’s a money issue. It’s a respect issue,” said Sara Pence, a nurse supervisor at Western, “and agreeing to give a little money — it also shows some respect there, too.”

Members of a nurses’ union were voting Wednesday and Thursday on a recruitment and retention package offered by the state. Details were being kept under wraps until after the vote. Pence said she voted yes.

$10 millionWorth of recruitment and retention pay incentives provided or in the works for state-hospital psychiatric staff

Other pay boosts have already taken effect.

“Assignment pay” implemented Dec. 1 to selected classes of workers has raised pay 15 percent for some psychologists and psychiatric social workers and 10 percent for psychiatrists and some other doctors. Psychiatrists also became temporarily eligible to earn time-and-a-quarter pay for working extra duty.

That follows on the heels of a series of other raises for psychiatrists that have raised average pay above $200,000. Glenn Morrison, a psychiatrist and union leader at Western State, said pay rates now should be reasonably competitive.

But he doubts doctors can count on the state for regular inflation-driven adjustments, which are common in some workplaces.

“It will address fixing this crisis but it won’t address the predictability that these crises are going to occur again at regular intervals,” Morrison said.

The pay boosts for specified groups are on top of general raises of 3 percent this year and 1.8 percent next year approved by the Legislature last summer for most state workers.

In addition to more nurses, Inslee now wants lawmakers to approve money for 11 more employees at the state hospitals to cover for staff going through safety training — part of a deal with state workplace regulators — and another 38 maintenance staff to work on safety improvements at the facilities.

Outside the hospitals, Inslee proposes money for local 16-bed crisis facilities and mobile crisis teams.

51 Registered nurses the governor’s budget proposes to add at Western State Hospital

Western State Hospital has canceled or rolled back the opening of recently funded new wards to free up staff. Some of that money is being plowed back into Inslee’s latest proposals for mental health.

While expansion has been shelved at Western, plans are moving ahead for a new ward at Eastern State Hospital and for converting the former Maple Lane juvenile facility in Grand Mound and a jail in Yakima into treatment facilities. The expansions are aimed at addressing a federal judge’s order for faster treatment of criminal defendants.

Inslee’s budget plan aims to bridge a roughly $500 million hole that he says has opened in the $38 billion two-year budget the Legislature wrote last summer while also adding about $200 million for other needs, or even more if lawmakers agree to narrow a series of tax exemptions.

Lawmakers will produce their own budget proposals in the session starting Jan. 11.

Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826, @Jordan_Schrader