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Pierce County Losing One Fourth Of Its Psychiatric Beds For A Year

Elaine Thompson
AP Photo
Western State Hospital in Lakewood is home to the 16-bed Telecare Recovery Partnership, which is moving out its last patient on Dec. 13

Pierce County is losing one quarter of its 64 psychiatric hospital beds for a year, as a provider relocates from its rented space at Western State Hospital. 

The Telecare Recovery Partnership, located on the grounds of the state-owned hospital in Lakewood, is moving out its last patient Wednesday as the company's lease expires. Its replacement facility is a year away from opening.

Leaders in Pierce County say the move, first reported by the Tacoma News Tribune, comes at a critical time for the county, as officials grapple with high demand for mental health care and a lack of beds. 

"We've had a problem of people overstaying in emergency rooms because there haven't been sufficient E&T beds, evaluation and treatment beds," said state Sen. Steve O'Ban, R-University Place. "So to be down a quarter is going to cause an even greater problem for our mental health care system in the county."

Telecare Corp., a California-based provider of mental health care, has leased a 16-bed ward of Western State Hospital since 2009. 

State officials notified the company about two years ago that they would need the space to expand forensic psychiatric evaluations of people accused of crimes, in order to comply with a federal court order.

"We completely have empathy for Telecare's situation," said Kelly Stowe, a spokeswoman for the state's Behavioral Health Administration. "I mean, [for] ourselves, the demand is more than the beds that we have available." 

While Western State Hospital serves more than 800 psychiatric patients from 20 counties in Western Washington, Telecare's section of the hospital was devoted to Pierce County residents. 

Specifically, it served county residents suffering a mental health crisis, including those who may pose a risk to themselves or others. Patients typically stayed for seven to 22 days.

There are now 48 such beds remaining throughout Washington's second most populous county, home to 800,000 people. 

Telecare is working to open a new 16-bed facility in the Pierce County community of Milton that is expected to open in December 2018, said company vice president Faith Richie.

In the interim, the company is launching a program designed to reduce demand for the county's remaining psychiatric beds by diverting potential patients to other sources of care.

A team of about 25 nurses, social workers, and other specialists will work in the field -- in emergency rooms, nursing homes, residential treatment centers -- to keep patients out of psychiatric hospitals, Richie said. 

"To be honest, I think it's a creative approach, given the dilemma we have," she said. "Everyone recognizes we need beds. And the state was in an impossible situation with their own deadline and need for beds, so we worked together." 

O'Ban said he and state Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, urged Gov. Jay Inslee in a letter about two weeks ago to halt Telecare's move. The last-minute bid was unsuccessful.

Funding for Western State Hospital's planned forensic ward is tied up in the state's capital budget, which lawmakers failed to pass during this year's legislative session. O'Ban said state officials should have let Telecare stay on a month-to-month basis until the funding is in place. 

The state Department of Social and Health Services made that offer to Telecare on Friday, but the company was already too far along in its closure process, Stowe said.

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.