Elections

Washington Governor's Opponent Makes Mental Health Problems a Key Part of Race

by | September 22, 2016

By Jim Brunner

Republican gubernatorial challenger Bill Bryant on Wednesday sought to turn festering problems at a state psychiatric hospital into a central campaign issue, calling Gov. Jay Inslee's record one of "mounting incompetence."

During a news conference at his south Seattle campaign headquarters, Bryant displayed 25,000 keys on a table -- the number of master keys that were found to be missing from Western State Hospital, according to a critical report on security lapses at the state facility.

Tracing a litany of problems over many years, which have put the mental hospital's federal funding in jeopardy, Bryant accused Inslee of poor management and even deception.

"The cumulative evidence woven together reveals negligence and incompetence at best and an election-year cover-up at worst," he said, pointing to Western's decision to pull out of an accreditation program without informing the public or hospital staff.

Jaime Smith, a spokeswoman for the governor's office, said Western State officials "needed to do a better job" when it came to disclosing to staff that it had withdrawn from the accreditation program. She denied a cover-up was intended.

In a statement, Inslee campaign spokesman Jamal Raad shot back at Bryant, calling his attacks "a desperate press stunt from a faltering campaign that has failed to gain any traction with Washington voters."

He added that Inslee has fought to restore mental-health funding that had been slashed during the Great Recession.

Inslee publicly fired Western State's CEO Ron Adler in April after an accused murderer and another patient escaped from the 800-bed Pierce County facility. That was only the latest in a litany of problems including assaults on staff and patients.

Bryant argued Inslee's actions were too little, too late, citing a Department of Corrections investigation into security lapses at the hospital. The report was finished months ago but only became public last week after it was obtained by The Associated Press following a public-records request.

In addition to the missing master keys, inspectors found tools used to open patient windows had been misplaced and faulted management for failing to recognize security risks that could jeopardize public safety. The problems were similar to those that had been called out in a security assessment six years earlier, the report noted.

Bryant did not roll out any detailed plan on how he'd fix Western State but said he'd have acted more swiftly and would have accepted bipartisan reforms contained in legislation approved by the Legislature this year.

Inslee vetoed sections of that bill, including one that would have allowed highly trained psychiatric nurses to perform more work at the hospital in an effort to combat a staffing shortage.

In his veto message, Inslee said he agreed with that goal but objected to the bill changing the state's existing process for creating such new staff classifications.

Raad noted Bryant has failed to unveil a long-promised education plan to deal with the state's underfunding of public schools, despite talking about possibly releasing one this week.

Asked about that at the news conference, Bryant said he was still "talking with a lot of people" but gave no timetable.

Inslee and Bryant are scheduled to meet in their second televised gubernatorial debate on Monday at Seattle University.

(c)2016 The Seattle Times

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