Legislature: Gains, frustrations for state’s mental-health system
Washington lawmakers added $25 million to the state's mental-health system in this year’s legislative session, but even bigger proposals did not make it.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Eileen Cody thinks policymakers of the future will recall the 2014 legislative session as a major step toward overhauling Washington state’s mental-health system.
“That doesn’t mean we fixed everything and did everything we could,” said Cody, a West Seattle Democrat who chairs the state House Health Care & Wellness Committee. “But we really made some targeted investments and made some fundamental, important moves.”
The investments include $8 million to start an intensive children’s mental-health program, $7 million to improve Washington’s bottom-of-the-country ranking in psychiatric-treatment beds and $3 million in flexible funding for counties. Those were the numbers originally in the House budget proposal, which was more generous to mental-health care than the Senate plan.
The moves included bills to integrate state mental-health services with drug-abuse treatment, streamline the permitting process for new psychiatric hospitals and establish a task force to ponder further changes.
Some ideas didn’t get through. To the dismay of the parents of a mentally ill man killed by Seattle police after firing a gun from the balcony of his Capitol Hill condo last July, the Legislature did not approve their proposal to allow people to appeal to a judge when officials choose not to involuntarily commit a family member. And lawmakers left town without passing a construction budget — leaving some counties in the odd position of getting money to operate psychiatric-treatment beds, but not to build the space to add them.
Still, Cody and others said that in a short, election-year session with little new money available, mental-health care was a big winner.
“I’d say that mental health did better than pretty much anything else,” said state Rep. Tami Green, D-Lakewood, who works as a psychiatric nurse. “I’m pretty giddy about it.”
Gordon Bopp, president of the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said, “There were several very good things that came out of [the session] that we supported. There were some things that we didn’t get, but we laid the groundwork for follow-up.”
A couple months before the session, The Seattle Times reported that a shortage of psychiatric-treatment beds was increasingly causing committed residents to wait for treatment for hours or days in hospital emergency rooms or medical units — where they were often tied down to prevent them from hurting themselves. So-called “psychiatric boarding” took place more than 4,000 times in Washington in 2012.
It is unclear how much the latest legislative efforts will help.
The operating budget signed Friday by Gov. Jay Inslee is supposed to fund operation of three 16-bed facilities to house involuntarily committed residents (in King County, rural northeastern Washington and either Thurston or Mason County) and three intensive-outreach teams aimed at reducing commitments (in King and Pierce counties and in central Washington).
But construction of the facilities is in jeopardy after the capital budget was felled by disagreements between the Republican-run Senate and Democrat-led House.
Jane Beyer, the head of the state’s mental-health care system, said officials will “marshal the expertise that we have and try to help think creatively” to find a solution. She suggested using existing buildings or asking providers to come up with space.
Suzie McDaniel, an administrator in the office serving northeastern Washington, was not as optimistic.
“You can’t do [a facility] without bricks and mortar, and even if we might find a building, it would have to be remodeled by [Department of Health] standards,” McDaniel said. “So we’re kind of in a holding pattern.”
“Holding pattern” is also a good description for the status of Doug and Nancy Reuter. They’re the parents of the slain Capitol Hill man, and after their son died they temporarily moved from Texas to Olympia to lobby for a bill they think would have prevented his death.
House Bill 2725, to give family members an appeal when involuntary commitment is rejected, failed in the Senate even after it attracted widespread attention, got dramatically scaled back and made it through the House on a 96-0 vote.
A similar proposal also failed in Minnesota’s Legislature, where Doug Reuter once served as a Republican representative.
Now the Reuters have to decide if they want to continue pursuing the issue.
In an interview, they expressed frustration with the session.
Specifically, they said they felt misled by Senate Republican Leader Mark Schoesler, who told reporters in a news conference on the last day of the session that the bill still had a chance in the upper chamber. The Reuters, who had started driving home after hearing the bill had no chance and had nearly reached Portland, decided to drive back.
When they arrived, they discovered the bill did not have a shot after all.
“We still don’t know, quite honestly, exactly what happened,” Doug Reuter said. “Clearly what happened was political, and that really is a shame because people are going to die because this bill did not pass.”
Schoesler, of Ritzville, said the Reuters misinterpreted his remark.
“I’m sorry they thought that was false hope,” he said. “But there’s a story in Olympia that you know well that a bill isn’t ever really dead until sine die,” a Latin term referring to the Legislature’s final adjournment for the session.
Schoesler and other senators said they rejected the bill because of its cost and because they didn’t want to make that big of a change to the system when another large change is to take effect in July — a tweak in law to make it easier to commit residents.
Instead, the senators suggested — but the House rejected — a delay in implementing the Reuters’ bill until they studied the impact of the coming change in commitment law.
“We want to see how that affects things,” Schoesler said.
Ironically, the change in commitment law was passed back in 2010. So the only reason the state doesn’t already know how it will affect things is because lawmakers delayed its implementation until this summer.
The reason for the 2010 delay was also cost concerns.
Reminded of that history, Cody, the House committee chairwoman, chuckled.
“The legislative process,” she said. “Isn’t it grand?”
Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal