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Closing psychiatric unit at UW would be 'devastating,' says nurse

UW's Medical Center operates a psychiatric unit with 10 beds.
KUOW Photo/Angela Nhi Nguyen
UW's Medical Center operates a psychiatric unit with 10 beds.

One of Seattle's psychiatric facilities is facing an uncertain future. The University of Washington Medical Center could shutter its psych unit, unless it makes "costly" upgrades.

UW's Medical Center operates a psychiatric unit with 10 beds. The beds are nearly always full, with more than 430 patients coming through the doors each year.

Anita Stull, a nurse in the unit who is represented by the Washington State Nurses Association, is worried about where patients would go if the unit closes.

"Although 10 beds seems like a very small amount, we always get calls for people who need beds. We fill beds from the entire state of Washington. I get calls from Bellingham to Olympia routinely," Stull said.

She’s worried because there’s already a shortage of beds in Washington. A 2015 report by Mental Health America ranks Washington as third for states with the highest prevalence of mental illness and lowest rates of access to care.

But, as first reported by The Stranger, UW Medicine is considering closing all or part of the unit. UW spokeswoman Susan Gregg told KUOW it's because of new federal facility requirements that will be costly to implement.

UW said it's looking at options for the psychiatric unit, which could include moving the beds to Harborview Medical Center or another facility such as Northwest Hospital.

Stull said she hopes that's the case. 

"I'm really hoping that the University will keep this unit until a year or two from now, and transitions over to maybe a different facility, but the loss of beds and the loss of places to put our family and friends is devastating," Stull said.

The UW Medical Center psychiatric unit serves patients who voluntarily check in for help with psychiatric problems, drug addiction, or other mental health crises.

The changes that UW faces came in a memo this past December from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. It sets stricter policies on preventing injuries or fatalities related to ligatures in the facility, such as shower rails and coat hooks.

UW Medicine says it is "committed to providing quality, compassionate and safe care to our psychiatry and behavioral health patients.”