Ongoing staffing shortages at Washington State’s two psychiatric hospitals continue to raise safety concerns for patients and staff, prompting calls for action from workers in recent weeks and threatening accreditation at Eastern State Hospital in Spokane County.
Mental health staff at the state’s two hospitals — Eastern, which serves about 240 patients and Western State Hospital in Lakewood, which serves about 670 patients — submitted 400 signatures to management in April calling for safer working conditions . A Pierce County jury on Friday awarded more than $2 million to Western State nurses who filed a lawsuit after four workers were attacked by a patient in 2018.
Meanwhile, at Eastern, dangerously low staffing has put the hospital on the radar of the Joint Commission, a national nonprofit organization that accredits healthcare facilities.
In late April, after an unannounced visit, Eastern State received notice from the commission, stating in a report that “there were insufficient staff to provide safe and quality care, treatment and services.”
In one case in March, the commission found that “the organization failed to protect a patient from abuse, as evidenced by a patient with a known history of physical assault…resulting in injury serious and ultimately the death of this patient”. The commission did not specify the patients involved, but The Spokesman-Review reported in March that 24-year-old Martay Ellis had been charged with second-degree murder for attacking another patient, Daniel Zellmer, in a common area of their service. Zellmer died of his injuries.
The hospital has until June 17 to submit proof of compliance. On Friday, officials said they had yet to submit a remediation plan to the Joint Commission.
According to data from the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees mental hospitals in the state, Eastern has a 27% staff vacancy rate. The hospital needs more mental health technicians and registered and practical nurses, among other employees.
Acting CEO Tony Bowie said nurses were in particular demand.
“It’s a competitive market. We are losing some of our nurses, many of them have become traveling nurses and many hospitals are offering bonuses.
The hourly wage for a licensed practical nurse in Eastern is $32.36, according to state job postings. At an employment agency, the same job starts at $40.
Bowie temporarily took over in September 2021, after the former CEO of Eastern resigned amid an investigation into the hospital’s handling of domestic abuse allegations against a former nurse. A new CEO, Eric Carpenter, is expected to take office on June 1.
Wages are rising 3.5% starting July 1 for members of the Washington State Employees’ Federation, which includes hospital staff.
Bowie also added that the hospital was looking to sign short- and long-term contracts with recruitment agencies to provide more workers, but said Eastern could not compete with higher salaries offered elsewhere without more funding. of the legislature.
Nancy Cruse, a recreation specialist at Eastern, said she’s seen administrative staff helping out with services when things are particularly difficult: “They can help open doors for laundry or give people towels or leaves. -pass. [meal] trays.
Cruse said patients need routine and after being in various stages of lockdown over the past few months, some are frustrated. This has led to a number of patient-on-patient and patient-on-staff attacks, she said.
Cruse says that although staffing has increased in recent weeks, some of the agency’s new nurses arriving have limited experience with psychiatric patients.
“They rushed these nurses through new hire orientation so quickly that they don’t know how to react if there’s a problem with a patient,” Cruse said.
Eastern’s twin, Western State Hospital in Lakewood, Pierce County, withdrew from the Joint Commission accreditation program a few years before losing its certification with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in 2018 – and with it, $53 million in federal funding. He is currently building a new hospital in an effort to recoup that funding.
So far, CMS has not visited Eastern State Hospital this year.
Both hospitals suffered from low staffing levels even before the pandemic.
In September 2018, Bernia Garner was the only staff registered nurse during her shift on Western State’s S7 ward. That’s when Christopher Adams Jones, a patient who used to harass and assault female hospital workers, bit off part of her earlobe.
The following month, four nurses caring for Jones filed a discrimination lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court against Western and the Department of Health and Human Services, citing harassment based on their gender, retaliation and management’s failure to provide reasonable accommodations.
On Friday, after a six-week trial, a jury ruled in favor of the four nurses; three have since left the hospital and one still works at Western State.
The nurses’ lawyer, James Blake, said the case was about DSHS’ failure to protect its employees.
“What DSHS represents to the state legislature each year through required workplace safety plans, versus what actually happens in terms of investigating and mitigating assault issues , is in total contradiction with each other,” Blake said.
A spokesperson for Western State and DSHS said the agency is reviewing the case and considering appealing the verdict, but did not provide further comment.
On a crisp April spring morning, staff gathered for a workers’ memorial day on the grounds of Lakewood Hospital. More than 300 white signs dotted the grass, each representing an employee injured on the job in the past year.
Hospital managers were there as workers shared their concerns.
“At the end of the day, it’s always about serving our patients again, about truly serving the most vulnerable citizens of our state,” said Mike Yestramski, social worker at Western and president of the local union.
“We’re all sounding the alarm about it, because it’s important, because we care. When we have the resources we need to do our job…we have achieved amazing results.