Vancouver mental health facility seeks to alleviate overcrowding

Washington officials want to fill more beds at the state’s two psychiatric hospitals with patients in the criminal justice system.

And to make room, government officials are building a 48-bed facility in Vancouver for people who have been civilly committed. More beds outside hospitals would open up more bed space inside, said Tyler Hemstreet, a spokesman for the Washington State Department of Human and Health Services.

The problems facing Washington state hospitals mirror those facing those in Oregon: There are more criminal defendants who need mental health rehabilitation to continue in court than there are treatment beds.

Unlike Washington, however, Oregon’s health authority has tasked counties with creating more community opportunities with state funding. This process is slow and the shortage remains high.

Construction starts soon

Department officials are applying for a building permit now that local public hearings are complete, Hemstreet said. The home treatment stay will vary between 90 and 180 days.

The start date for construction of the facility, slated for 12 acres on Northeast 50th Avenue near Washington State University’s Vancouver campus, is tentatively set for next spring, Hemstreet said. “It was a bit of a moving target.” The facility is scheduled to be completed by the winter of 2024.

Plans call for three facilities to be built on the site, each with 16 beds. The Washington State Department of Human and Health Services will operate one of the facilities, while the Washington State Health Authority operates the other two.

Hemstreet said the facilities will open bed space at Western State Hospital in Lakewood and Eastern State Hospital in Medical Lake.

The new facilities in Vancouver will provide their services in a less institutionalized environment that is calm and residential, he said. A similar 16-bed facility is slated to open early next year in Rochester, a city of 5,000 people 25 miles south of Olympia.

Overcrowding in Washington state’s mental health facilities sparked a class action lawsuit in 2014. The attorneys at Trueblood et. al v. Washington State DSHS alleged that mentally ill defendants were left behind bars, often for months, before receiving court-ordered competency evaluations and mental health services.

U.S. District Court Judge Marsha Pechman ruled in 2015 that state officials must provide competency evaluations within 14 days and must transfer people from jail to mental health facilities within seven days.

When the patient waits more than seven days, the state begins to impose fines at the discretion of the judge. Disability Rights Washington reports that the state has already racked up more than $100 million in such fines. Representatives for Disability Rights Washington and its partner, Disability Rights Oregon, did not respond to requests for an interview.

Hemstreet said the Trueblood case spurred plans to add beds for patients in need of treatment. “They’re not getting what they need if they’re in prison. They should be in government mental hospitals,” he said.

State officials also plan to renovate the 150-year-old Western State Hospital in Lakewood. In addition to adding beds, plans include making the facility’s design more therapeutic, such as allowing in more natural light. Hemstreet said the project is expected to cost between $500 million and $600 million.

The new facility will add capacity to a system with high needs. The Western State Hospital has 837 patient beds and the Eastern State Hospital has 337 beds, for a total of 1,174 beds.

But only a small proportion of these beds are intended for criminal “forensic” patients: 370 in the Western State Hospital and 175 in the Eastern State Hospital, for a total of 545.

In 2021, according to state records, Western State Hospital admitted 712 forensic patients and Eastern State Hospital admitted 262 forensic patients. The bed was limited last year due to the COVID-19 restrictions.

Washington is now seeing its first new mental health facilities in two decades, Hemstreet said, adding that “this is a real statement of the Legislature putting its money where its mouth is.”

Tom Henderson can be found at: [email protected]

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