Originally published Thursday, February 17, 2011 at 9:03 PM

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Truth Needle: Union ad on Western State mostly false

In a new TV ad, the Washington Federation of State Employees claims that "because of state cuts violence has increased" at Western State Hospital. We found that claim to be mostly false.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Claim: In a new TV ad, the Washington Federation of State Employees claims that "because of state cuts violence has increased" at Western State Hospital.

What we found: Mostly false

The ad, which is running on radio, TV and the Internet, is one of three that the state employees union is airing as lawmakers consider cuts to social services and other programs to help close a $5 billion state budget shortfall.

The ad takes aim at past and proposed cuts to the Department of Social and Health Services, which runs Western State Hospital. It features a licensed practical nurse who works at the hospital speaking directly into the camera to express concern about further cuts. As she says that "violence has become all too common," the words "because of state cuts violence has increased" appear on the screen.

Western State Hospital, an 806-bed psychiatric facility in Lakewood, Pierce County, has faced budget cuts in recent years that undoubtedly make its difficult work even harder. In October, the hospital closed a 30-bed inpatient ward, cutting 50 jobs and saving $3 million a year. Not filling vacancies and cutting overtime have reduced another $1.8 million.

In addition, an outpatient program housed at the hospital, called PALS, is being eliminated by the end of February as its funding from community mental-health networks evaporated.

The federation, which represents licensed practical nurses, psychologists, psychiatric attendants and other staff at Western State, says the cuts make the workplace more dangerous but has little data to back up the claim that "violence has increased."

We find the claim is mostly false.

To be sure, the hospital, the state's oldest institution, has long been a hazardous place to work. One study in 1999 found that the job of psychiatric attendant was the most injury-prone in the state work force. Currently, the rate of disability-insurance premiums for state hospital employees — which is based on the frequency of injury claims — is more than 2.5 times the rate for corrections officers in prisons.

Assaults on staff

Assaults on staff peaked in 2006, when a total of 42,790 work days — more than 117 years — were lost to disability claims, according to the state Department of Labor and Industries. At one point, nearly 5 percent of the hospital's work force was out on injury leave at any one time. The hospital's disability-insurance tab rose to $6.5 million annually, alerting legislators, state officials and union leaders that workplace-safety policies were broken.

A concerted effort to reduce violence since appears to have worked.


Jess Jamieson, hospital CEO, said Western State has reduced its use of seclusion and restraints on patients — a control technique that can trigger trauma — while focusing more on the trigger points for patients' violence. All patients have individual safety plans to keep themselves and staff safer.

In mid-2010, the rate of assaults on staff dropped to its lowest level since 2001, according to a report filed by DSHS to the state Legislature. More recent measures show the assault rate fluctuating into last fall, the most recent period for which data is available. But the overall trend has been steadily downward.

In addition, the number of staff work days lost to injury declined in 2010 to about 17,000, less than half the amount in 2006, according to L&I data.

There is much less data available that tracks patient-on-patient violence. An attorney with Disability Rights, a federal watchdog group that monitors patient conditions at Western State, said he is not aware of any increase in patient-on-patient violence.

When asked for data to support the ad's claims, a spokesman for the federation sent studies and news articles from 2006 that documented the peak of the violence.

Carol Dotlich, president of the federation, said in an interview that she has heard numerous anecdotal stories that staffing cuts have left too few employees available to respond to incidents of violence.

Safety programs

Safety programs put in place following the peak of violence — including behavioral-management teams intended to head off incidents — have also been cut, she said.

Dotlich acknowledged that, as a trend line, injury rates have gone down.

"But they (the trend lines) don't account for all the damage that has been done" in terms of injuries to staff, she said.

The union's ad closes with an admonishment to lawmakers to find budget solutions that don't simply cut.

The nurse in the ad says: "What they really need to do is find real solutions to the budget mess instead of putting our lives, and the lives of the public, at even greater risk."

Jonathan Martin: 206-464-2605 or