Some state lawmakers are questioning Gov. Jay Inslee’s call to add more staff positions to deal with unsafe conditions at Western State Hospital.
The Democratic governor wants the Legislature to add more than 60 positions, mostly for nurses, at the Lakewood psychiatric hospital after federal inspectors found a lack of properly trained staff and other problems.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler noted in comments to reporters last week that one of the training gaps was in infection control — “proper handwashing and gloves 101.”
“If they can’t teach infection control properly, rewarding them with more FTEs probably isn’t going to help either,” said Schoesler, a Ritzville Republican, referring to full-time-equivalent employee positions.
The Department of Social and Health Services told a legislative committee in a recent hearing that teaching proper sanitary practices required having enough staff to allow for training time.
Inslee visited Western State Hospital on Friday for the first time since the federal findings and talked to employees and management.
“They are hampered by not having enough staff,” his spokeswoman, Jaime Smith, said, “wanting more training, which they can’t get because they don’t have enough staff to cover their shifts.”
High turnover has left about 300 vacancies at the hospital.
During the committee hearing, lead Senate budget writer Andy Hill, R-Redmond, raised questions about the need for more staff positions with all of those open jobs.
Even before the current crisis, employees and consultants have reported chronic understaffing at the hospitals. The union that represents nurses says it is hard to hire and keep new staff when each one is expected to do the work of multiple people.
If “you were trying to hire for a waitress to serve a whole 100-table restaurant, you would never get that waitress,” Lindsey Grad, a lobbyist for Service Employees International Union 1199NW, said Friday.
Adding positions would make it easier to hire and keep staff, she said.
The state is addressing recruitment and retention by raising pay. Inslee is asking the Legislature to ratify several recent pay raises.
Mental health funding has won bipartisan backing in recent years. Republican lawmakers note the Legislature provided money for state hospitals in 2015.
“Before we throw money at them, we want to make sure that they’re at least spending the increased money we gave them and spending it well,” Schoesler said.
Lawmakers funded more than 200 positions at Western and Eastern state hospitals. But most of the money was intended for taking on more patients, not to reduce workloads for staff.
Expansion was aimed at satisfying courts that have ordered DSHS to provide more timely treatment to keep patients from languishing in jails and hospitals that aren’t set up to treat their illnesses.
After inspections drew attention to safety problems, DSHS pulled the plug on most of the expansion at Western State. Expansions are still in the works in Eastern Washington and at a Grand Mound facility where a contractor will treat criminal defendants.
Rep. J.T. Wilcox said the safety problems are nearly as big an issue as early release of inmates at the Department of Corrections because of a programming error.
“These are the most vulnerable people among us and we put a lot of money in there. We funded the governor’s request and then some, and instead of getting better, I’m afraid in some cases it might have gotten worse,” Wilcox, R-Yelm, said.
Senate Minority Leader Sharon Nelson said lawmakers slashed the hospital’s budget in the years before the recent increases.
“It has been an institution that has been underfunded for some time,” Nelson, D-Maury Island, said.
One area where lawmakers might find common ground is on a proposal to add more legislative oversight of the state hospitals. Four Republicans signed on in support of House Bill 2453, proposed by Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma. A hearing is set for Tuesday.