Western State crisis shows lack of action, lack of leadership

No one in state government gets to plead ignorance on this one. Western State Hospital, a mental health facility, has been in crisis for years.

The deficiencies, management turnover, aging facilities, escapes, and workforce problems are well-known and much discussed. The state has suffered numerous lawsuit losses over conditions at the hospital, and several courts have ordered improvements.

Federal regulators have seen enough. This week they decertified Western State, which means a loss of $53 million annually in federal dollars. State government will now have to backfill that funding.

Leadership, sustained attention is missing
What has been missing from the crisis is real action by the executive branch to address the problems. The state has increased funding at Western State by quite a bit, and legislators in 2016 passed a bipartisan reform bill to improve conditions there. But Gov. Inslee vetoed that bill at the behest of a union that supports him politically.

“To see that nursing care, and quality improvement and governance are still being cited — these are things that were being cited two years ago,” state Rep. Laurie Jinkins (D-Tacoma) told the Seattle Times. “That is extremely frustrating.”

Senate Republicans’ budget chief John Braun (R-Centralia) said, “I’m disappointed that our executive branch can’t seem to focus on an issue that we’ve been working on for years.”

The problems at Western State don’t require more studies or blue-ribbon commissions. What’s needed is leadership, and that requires sustained attention by Inslee and his team. The long-term nature of these problems is partly due to the fact that Inslee just hasn’t been engaged with or interested in Western State.

Maybe if there was a climate change angle to the Western State story we would see some action. These issues did not crop up over a weekend, but it is notable that the governor spent the weekend testing the presidential waters in Iowa as the feds were preparing to decertify the state’s most important mental facility.

Action is needed at Western State, and it’s time for Inslee and the state to step up. The need for improvements at the hospital shouldn’t be used as an excuse for tax increases or contingent on some future plan. State government can handle this with the resources it has.

No time like the present
The Seattle Times ed board says the decertification “highlights the ongoing failures of leadership, internal governance and quality control that have persisted at the hospital under Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee’s watch,” calling out the “colossal, repeated failures” at Western State that are “a lasting stain” on his legacy.

Those are tough words. But it’s never too late to start doing the right thing.

Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-Lakewood) tweeted, “No one likes criticism but a leader takes it in stride and overcomes the great challenges if he’s a good one. Governor, step up and fix this.” Now is the time for Inslee to get engaged, stay engaged, and display some leadership.
-Rob McKenna

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.