New CEO delivers update on Western State Hospital

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The new leader of Western State Hospital visited city hall on Feb. 26, where he gave Tacoma City Council a no-nonsense assessment of the aging facility’s condition, current efforts at improvement and plans for the future. Dave Holt, who took over as CEO at the psychiatric hospital in Lakewood eight months ago, has been visiting with leaders of area cities since he began his new position. Joined by several members of his staff, Holt discussed Governor Jay Inslee’s plans for the institution.

Inslee wants to change Western State into a facility for forensic patients. These are individuals who wind up in jail and a judge determines they are not fit to stand trial. They are then transferred to Western for evaluation. People who have been found not guilty of a crime by reason of insanity also fall into this category. In contrast, people on a civil commitment have not been charged with a crime but have been determined to pose a danger to themselves or others. The governor wants to place civil patients in two smaller facilities elsewhere in the state with about 150 beds. Locations for these have not been identified.

Holt said Western State and Eastern State Hospital near Spokane both have aging infrastructure “in need of constant and continuous improvement.” Plumbing, electrical and other systems in his facility are very outdated, “held together with Band-aids and super glue.” The building cannot accommodate electrical health records systems and it is not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The aging buildings pose safety problems for staff and patients. A ward safety committee was recently started to allow employees to address concerns. Leadership meets once a week to examine the issue.

Dan Davis, chief safety and security officer, discussed how Western State was an open campus. That has been changed with the addition of a 15-foot-tall fence. The number of security guards has doubled since 2016. There has been a 93 percent reduction in unauthorized leaving of the facility. The nurse stations are being enclosed. “We are doing a lot to keep things safe,” he said.

Holt said the population of Western State is changing. Many patients now are young males with a history of substance abuse from areas with high unemployment. Many are prone to violence, neurons fried from years of drug use. “It has completely changed the patient population.” Some of those in the civil category are just as violent as the forensic, he added.

The governor’s ideas are still in the planning phase, with a call for $7.5 million to be spent on preliminary design work.

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