One of south Pierce County's state legislators is leading a bipartisan effort to improve Washington's mental healthcare system.

The Select Committee on Quality in State Hospitals announced last week it has agreed on preliminary recommendations that it listed in a letter to Governor Jay Inslee. It's hoped that the information will become a framework for future policy proposals, said Sen. Randi Becker.

The committee's recommendations focus chiefly on Western State Hospital.

“The patient must be our primary focus in any process to improve conditions at Western State,” said Becker, a Republican from Eatonville who is committee's co-chairwoman. “Treatment should be more accessible so mental illness doesn’t lead to crimes and civil commitments. Early intervention, which could be done through telemedicine, will make a huge difference for patients and their families.”

Preliminary recommendations include:

• Prioritizing capacity at state hospitals for forensic rather than civil commitments

• Creating capacity for inpatient psychiatric care in community settings for most civil commitments

• Exploring diversion strategies that reduce the need for inpatient treatment

“After hearing from experts and studying the data, it’s evident much has to be done to improve the availability of mental health services for our families, friends and neighbors,” said the committee's other co-chairwoman, Rep. Laurie Jinkins, a Democrat from Tacoma. “Care in our state mental hospitals has been negatively impacted by staff shortages, lack of community-based services and outmoded mental health practices. I'm excited we have bipartisan agreement on an approach to addressing these issues.”

The Legislature established the committee in 2016, a result of efforts to fix safety and capacity issues at the two state-run psychiatric hospitals – Western State in Pierce County and Eastern State near Spokane. State budget cuts in previous years contributed to many of the issues, but legislators noted Washington’s model of utilizing large psychiatric hospitals for long-term inpatient mental health treatment is also an outdated one.

Over the last two years, the Legislature has put more funding into mental healthcare for new patient beds, increased staffing at hospitals, and reduced wait times for psychiatric evaluations. Also, a new chief executive officer for Western State  was hired earlier this year. But more needs to be done to move away from the large hospital model and help patients move more efficiently through the system, Becker said.

Despite its additional funding, Western State has "continued to fail inspections. Staffing levels suffered, patient treatment standards were compromised and safety issues continued to escalate, both in the hospital and the community. Adequate funding is essential, but even more important are meaningful reforms,” Becker said.

Becker, whose Second Legislative District includes south Pierce County and part of Thurston County, is one of eight legislators on the committee grappling with the issues. Its work is expected to continue the rest of this year after the 2017 session of the Legislature concludes in the next few months.