Mental health crisis teaching hospital could be created in Seattle

Tuesday, March 19th, 2019
By Jennifer Sullivan

A proposal to create a teaching hospital and up to 150 beds for people in mental health crisis in Seattle appears to have broad support in Olympia.

On Tuesday, the measure passed a Senate committee. Last week, it passed the House unanimously.

“The need for mental health care across our state has outgrown our facilities and our supply of trained health care professionals,” said State Sen. Annette Cleveland, D-Vancouver, the chair of the Senate Health & Long Term Care Committee. “This important facility will address those needs head-on by expanding our physical capacity, enlarging our skilled workforce and increasing access through the use of telehealth services. The establishment of this dedicated behavioral health facility at the University of Washington would be the first of its kind in the nation.”

Dr. Jürgen Unützer, who chairs the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of Washington, told KOMO Tuesday the facility would be accredited and modern – two things, he says, neither of the state mental health hospitals are.

“We would have a facility that’s not from 1871,” Unützer said, referencing Western State Hospital, in Lakewood. “We would have a facility that’s from 2021 that’s state of the art, that’s approved, that’s a safe welcoming environment where people would take their family members and say this is a place that can give me some hope.”

The hospital and training facility is part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s larger plan to address mental illness statewide. Inslee has been critical of the state-run mental health hospitals, especially Western State after which lost more than $50 million in federal funding last year and was decertified by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Among the concerns cited by investigators were staff and patient safety, blocked fire exits and building safety issues.

Unützer said the proposal gives UW the green light to begin planning. He said a cost estimate and an exact location have not been determined. He said the facility would likely be either be at Harborview Medical Center, Northwest Hospital & Medical Center or at UW Medical Center.

Unützer said he realizes some people might not want the facility, which would include beds for people in acute mental crisis, in their neighborhoods.

“I’ve not met a family who hasn’t had someone struggle with a mental health or addiction problem at some point in their lives. So, what would I say to them? This could be you or your family member,” he said.

In his more than 20 years of practicing medicine, Unützer said he hasn’t seen this many people in need of care. He said communities across the state are woefully short on mental health providers.

“I think we have a tremendous need right now, we have what most people would agree is a crisis,” he said.

Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, said Washington is facing a crisis.

“Washington state is currently facing a behavioral health crisis, and it’s clear that we need to make changes in coming years,” Frockt said. “I’m very supportive of the plan to create a Behavioral Health Innovation and Integration campus within the University of Washington’s medical school. Based on my discussion with members on both sides of the aisle, this proposal has significant bipartisan support in the Senate like it did in the House. This plan would add much needed bed capacity, move people into better settings, transform our behavioral health workforce, and most importantly, help people get the treatment they need.”

Because of this shortage, the new facility will offer video teleconferencing for medical providers who need help with patient diagnoses.

“They can just call us up and say, ‘I have this patient here in my emergency room, in my clinic, in my school-based health center, whatever it might be, can you help me with this,’” Unützer said. “And we could do is just talk them through what to do as a clinician or we could even provide a tele-video consultation.”

Unützer said the UW already has the largest psychiatric training facility in the nation, but he envisions even more types of training at the proposed hospital. He said he’d like to see family care doctors, nurses, social workers and students get the necessary training to help people in early-onset mental health crisis.

“There’s a shortage of good training facilities,” he said.