Heartbreak hospital

Washington's largest mental hospital faces huge cutbacks and staff turmoil.

ONLY A YEAR AGO, Governor Gary Locke was talking about tearing down gloomy, 128-year-old Western State Hospital and replacing the Pierce County psychiatric institution with a gleaming new structure. Today, Western's supporters think, he's decided to go ahead with half the plan: Just tear it down.

That would almost be the effect, they say, of his proposed cutbacks at the state's biggest mental hospital. As part of a two-year statewide budget of $22.7 billion, Locke and Department of Social and Health Service (DSHS) officials are asking the Legislature to cut around 300 beds and more than 300 workers from Western's operations.

Locke proposes lopping off at least $12 million in funds for Western and smaller Eastern State Hospital, and farming out mental patients whose illnesses are caused by Alzheimer's, drug abuse, or brain injury.

Though Locke cited an economic need to reduce services, his state budget is $2 billion more than the last one. And though his $236 million in program cuts are coming mostly from DSHS, the Department of Health, and the Department of Corrections, he enigmatically noted during his budget address, "I don't believe the voters want us to cut back on human services."

Western's workers, whose relations with management were already frayed, say the cuts would be crippling for the crowded, 1,000-bed facility with a workforce of 1,700.

"This once proud flagship of mental health services is being turned into a workplace of fear and a rust bucket of shame," Carol Dotlich, a Western worker and official of the Washington Federation of State Employees, said at a rally of 250 workers on the front steps of Western's red brick campus last month.

Hospital workers approved a no-confidence resolution against four of Western's top officials for allegedly mismanaging the facility, reports union spokesman Tim Welch.

The hospital's workers have long expressed concern about security and understaffing that, in turn, can lead to patient mistreatment: One US inspection last year turned up a developmentally disabled Western patient kept in restraints for 512 hours in one month. The hospital was fined by the state Department of Labor and Industries for security breakdowns last year that led to a bloody attack on workers in an understaffed ward for the criminally insane. Federal agencies have twice in recent years threatened to pull about $56 million of Western's US funding, primarily due to deficiencies caused by understaffing.

The hospital was already in a cutback mode before Locke's proposal, having recently shuttered its medical infirmary. Yet there's been an increase in management staff, says Welch.

State Representative Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, thinks it behooves Locke to look before he leaps. "Come out here to this hospital," he said at the December rally, "talk to the people, and talk to your employees and find out from them what is necessary to protect not only their safety but the patients' safety, for crying out loud."

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