- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 14, 2016

SEATTLE (AP) - A Pierce County court commissioner has issued a one-week delay of an order that could result in the new head of beleaguered Western State Hospital being jailed.

Commissioner Craig Adams last week found Cheryl Strange, the psychiatric hospital’s CEO, in contempt of court, and demanded that she either admit a certain patient - as previously ordered - or report to jail by noon Wednesday.

But on Tuesday Adams stayed the order until June 21 after the Attorney General’s Office appealed. Adams scheduled a hearing for that morning.

The patient at issue has been held in a general hospital since April because there aren’t enough beds at Western State. Strange has said she doesn’t plan to move the man up the waiting list for admission to Western State because other patients may be sicker and have priority.

Western State has struggled with staffing shortages, attacks by patients on staff and each other, and escapes. Federal officials have threatened to cut millions of dollars in funding. Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Strange in April to help fix the problems.

Injured employees missed 41,301 days of work between 2010 and 2014, according to an investigation by The Associated Press. And workers’ compensation insurance paid $6 million in wage and medical costs for claims to injured hospital workers between 2013 and 2015, the AP found.

The hospital also has security problems.

Two dangerous men, including one charged with torturing a woman to death, escaped out a window on April 6. The AP found that more than 180 patients have gone missing - some walked away and some escaped - since 2013.

In a statement Tuesday, Carla Reyes, assistant secretary of the Behavioral Health Administration in the Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees Western State, said Strange can’t do that work if she’s in jail.

There are 73 people awaiting admission to the 800-bed hospital, and there are 181 patients there who could be discharged if there were adequate support services, such as housing, available for them in the community, DSHS says.

“We simply cannot increase civil admissions until we have staff who can provide the quality of care that leads to recovery,” Reyes said. “And we have patients who have completed treatment and are waiting to get out of the hospital, but there is a lack of support services and stable places for them to live in the community. It is a Catch-22 situation.”

The commissioner’s order also applied to Bea Dixon, director of Optum Pierce, a behavioral health organization that provides mental health services to Pierce County.

“We take very seriously the mental health needs of each of our members, as well as all those in Pierce County and across the state who need care at Western State Hospital,” the organization said in a statement. “This particular patient is safe and receiving in-patient care for both his medical and behavioral needs.”

The Washington State Hospital Association came to Strange’s defense Tuesday, noting that it’s the ethical obligation of all hospitals to treat the sickest patients first.

“Jailing the CEO for doing what is her ethical obligation doesn’t make any sense and won’t fix the problem,” said association executive vice president Cassie Sauer.

The commissioner told The News Tribune of Tacoma last week state law doesn’t allow a patient to be boarded in a hospital for more than one 30-day stay while awaiting psychiatric treatment. He described the patient as a disabled veteran with symptoms of dementia.

“To leave anyone stranded in a single-bed certification is a disservice and a violation of their constitutional rights,” Adams said.

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Follow Johnson at https://twitter.com/GeneAPseattle


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