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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Mental Health Looms As Next Vexing Challenge For Washington Lawmakers

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, flanked by lawmakers and state officials, announces a plan to move all psychiatric patients who have not committed crimes out of the state hospitals by 2023.

For the last several years, Washington state lawmakers have been working on a response to a state Supreme Court order to fully fund schools. Now they’re signaling a shift to the next big challenge: mental health.

At a news conference Friday at Western State Hospital, Republican state Sen. Steve O’Ban framed Washington’s mental health crisis this way:

“I kind of think of this as, this is a bad analogy perhaps, but McCleary Two,” he said.

It was a reference to the McCleary school funding lawsuit that forced lawmakers to invest years and billions of dollars into shoring up public schools.

“Now that we, I believe, have the education issue resolved, this I think needs to be the primary focus of the Legislature in the coming sessions,” O’Ban said.

O’Ban isn’t the only one calling for a renewed focus on mental health. He was flanked by a pair of Democrats from the state House who said this is a bipartisan issue. In addition, Gov. Jay Inslee is calling for an accelerated change in how the state’s two psychiatric hospitals are operated.

By 2023, Inslee wants to move all patients who haven’t been accused or convicted of a crime out of Western and Eastern State Hospitals. Instead, they would be treated in a dozen new, 16-bed facilities throughout the state.

“We are trying to provide a 21st century level of mental health with an institutional model that was designed in the previous century,” Inslee said. “And Washington state with these very large civil mental health facilities are frankly an outlier.”

Inslee said treating civil mental health patients in their own communities is a better approach. That would leave the state’s two psychiatric hospitals to focus on patients who come through the criminal court system.

The state of Washington has paid $55 million in contempt fines for not having enough so-called forensic beds, resulting in mentally ill jail inmates languishing behind bars.

It’s not clear how much more money will be needed to create what the governor calls a system of “excellent care.”

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."