State Workers

Mental health safety net taking a hit as budget cuts trim services

The latest round of budget cuts is falling hard on Washington state's safety net for the mentally ill, and state workers fear it could be just the beginning.

Western State Hospital is closing a ward as part of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s 6.3 percent across-the-board cuts, reducing space for people committed to the psychiatric hospital by civil court proceedings. The state plans to save $1.4 million through June by eliminating the 30-bed ward and 50 jobs.

Also taking the across-the-board hit: community mental health services, which the state provides through Regional Support Networks. Those services are being slashed by $18 million, according to Gregoire’s office.

“I think that will accelerate the downward spiral,” said Jonathan Rosenblum of Service Employees International Union Local 1199, who led a group of about 20 SEIU members protesting budget cuts at the Capitol on Monday.

“Some counties will totally eliminate non-Medicaid services,” he said.

State lawmakers will soon have a chance to scale back parts of Gregoire’s cuts they don’t like – if they can come up with the money somewhere else. But savings are getting harder to find.

In a pre-Christmas special session announced Monday and a regular session starting Jan. 10, lawmakers will have to go much deeper than the across-the-board cuts Gregoire ordered in September if they are to bridge a more than $1 billion shortfall for the budget year ending in June.

At Western State Hospital, morale has suffered, said Kate Severson, a nurse there. She said the ward closed in October.

“There is a persistent sense in the hospital that another ward will be closed if there are more cuts, which lends itself to high anxiety among the staff,” Severson said.

Western State has 17 wards for civil commitments and nine wards for patients coming from the criminal justice system, Severson said.

“With the current census, WSH has capacity to take the beds off line and still accommodate the existing WSH clients,” the state Department of Social and Health Services concludes in a report on its plan. But long-term effects are unknown, the agency says.

Nurses on the front lines of dealing with the mentally ill are among those state employees taking unpaid leave once a month, Severson said. The furloughs were ordered by the Legislature this year.

Severson, Rosenblum and others at the news conference couched their plea to spare the mental health system in terms of public safety. They invoked the crimes of cop killer Maurice Clem-mons and other mentally unstable offenders and said Washington will see more violence if the mentally ill are denied services and left to cycle through emergency rooms and jails.

“I believe we can’t feel safe if we know that there is untreated mental illness among our fellow citizens,” Severson said.

SEIU cited a 2006 study by DSHS that found the department served just over half of the low-income, mentally ill population in Washington, leaving more than 200,000 people untreated.