In a recent article entitled, “US: Care lacking at troubled Washington psychiatric hospital,” that appeared in many Northwest and national USA news sites and sources, the continuing troubles at Washington state’s Western State (psychiatric) Hospital were documented. Speaking as a psychiatrist that recognizes both the still present need for inpatient psychiatric beds and treatment, as well as the past history of state hospital abuses, I am again troubled by the travails of this hospital.
For the reader, I wish to add a little background. This hospital is very large, over 800 beds and serves a rather large if not huge area as big as some countries. It has had all kinds of troubles over the last several years. It almost lost its federal hospital accreditation a few years ago. Loss of such endorsement in the USA means that a hospital is not able to bill for services rendered to patients through the American-federal insurance entities of Medicare (for American elderly) and Medicaid (for the American poor, those on “welfare,” the derogatory term in the USA for aid to the poor).
The news detailed that this hospital will lose up to $53M in the coming financial year which runs from July 2018 until the end of June 2019. That, in turn, means that Washington State will have to make up that money to the hospital to keep it running. And for the wondering reader not well acquainted with the American health care system, such a public hospital can NOT close. Services of psychiatric care cannot stop for obvious reasons.
The article referenced above gives a good deal of the history behind this unfortunate development which I will not go into. I wish to give the reader some semblance of explanation of why this has happened. The reader will need to have a historical viewpoint. The problems of this hospital did not start a year or two back…They have been longstanding to say the least.
Like many state hospitals in the USA, Western is located out in the countryside, quite a distance, meaning usually up to a hundred or more miles from the nearest urban area. This means that the labor pool un its area, including its home city, has a quite small metropolitan area from which to draw employees for hire. And this state hospital like most, has to employ hundreds of health workers. My own state hospital of my employ has 1,200 employees!
As a corollary in our modern society that now is overwhelmingly city based with all the ‘amenities’ thereof, is a harder sell to prospective employees. Few persons want to uproot themselves and move to a much smaller city or town and give up the modern shopping centers and such.
Currently, salaries for the professional working class are moderately lower in state psychiatric hospital settings than comparable urban areas. For nurses, physicians, physician-psychiatrists, across the economic board. Western State Hospital has long had psychiatrist shortages and nurse shortages. A few years ago the hospital had to suddenly close wards totally a hundred beds or so. No psychiatrists to see the patients…The salary issues had prompted several, ?seven or so, to move themselves and their skills to a VA (Veteran’s Administration) hospital in another part of the state because the VA hospital pay was SO MUCH HIGHER. Western State could not compete.
Another issue that has hurt Western is that the hospital structure itself is housed in a building that is many decades old, some dating back to the late 1800’s. This circumstance is actually NOT all that unusual in the USA. Most of the American state hospitals originated in the state hospital building boom after 1870 or so. [My own state hospital’s main building just a connecting walkway away from the building I work in, was built in1875. It is a gorgeous building that fortunately has been masterfully maintained].
Washington state’s governor, Jay Inslee, has labored mightily for several years to help correct the situation. He has worked with the previously reluctant legislature to increase funding which still needs far more generosity on a permanent basis. Implicit in this last sentence is a hint. Psychiatric state hospitals in the USA have long been underfunded.
Worsening this chronic pattern has been that in the last 20 years or so since the first ‘recession’ of the dot com era’s origin in 1999, states’ tax intake has shrunk. With each wave of recession in the American economy, states in the federal union that is called the United States, have had to drastically tighten their budgets. Public healthcare including state psychiatric hospitals, highway construction funding, financial initiatives in public transit, and education have taken very significant hits.
The results have been the kinds of delayed consequences that are exemplified in Western State Hospital’s evolving plight resulting in its delayed de-accreditation. This slow train wreck in public state hospitals is developing at a number of other state psychiatric hospital systems. Few states are doing what it takes to rebuild, revamp and replaces their aging, falling down facilities. The solution in the majority of states especially in the Northeastern United States has been to close many facilities. This has had the predictable result of throwing hundreds of essential inpatient psychiatric beds into thin air. And this is where the huge increase in mentally ill came from that now occupy jails and are homeless on cities’ streets.
So another basis for the de-accreditation has been that the physical plant of Western is so old and faulty that buildings are not safe and are hazards to residents and employees’ well being.