AP Exclusive: Washington hospital is 'like going into hell'


SEATTLE (AP) — Behind tall brick walls and secure windows, hundreds of patients at Washington state's largest psychiatric hospital live in conditions that fail U.S. health and safety standards, while overworked nurses and psychiatrists say they are navigating a system that punishes employees who speak out despite critical staffing shortages.

"They don't have enough staff to protect patients, or provide them with the bare minimum of care," said Lisa Bowser, whose mother spent two years at Western State Hospital and suffered dozens of falls and assaults.

"Going there was like going into hell," said Bowser, who has sued the state-run facility. "I honestly thought they would kill her before I could get her out."

U.S. and state regulators for years have found health and safety violations at the 800-bed hospital, ranging from assaults on staff to escapes of dangerous patients, including a man accused of torturing a woman to death.

Even after that 2016 escape, a nursing supervisor told The Associated Press that a patient who had been charged with murder and found not guilty by reason of insanity was placed in a less secure ward and the nurse faced retaliation after reporting the danger to non-violent patients.

Despite a shakeup in leadership and vows to correct problems, the hospital continually puts patients at risk, according to a surprise federal inspection last month. Some didn't get oxygen and blood-sugar checks; injuries weren't properly treated; they were held in restraints too long; and the building remained a fire hazard. Some violations were cited in inspections going back to 2015.

After years of chances, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services last week stripped the hospital of its certification and federal funding, about 20 percent of its budget at $53 million annually.

Gov. Jay Inslee said he wants the state to change how it handles the mentally ill but that it's making inroads.

"We have been on a course correction to turn this ship around and we are continuing on that course of improvement," the Democrat told AP.

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