Western State workers claim they're victims of retaliation, despite Federal investigation

Two workers at Western State Hospital claim they are victims of retaliation, despite a warning from the feds for the hospital to stop that pattern of behavior. (Photo: KOMO News)

LAKEWOOD, Wash. - Two workers at Western State Hospital claim they are victims of retaliation, despite a warning from the feds for the hospital to stop that pattern of behavior.

The hospital has been under a federal microscope ever since two dangerous patients escaped from the Lakewood facility more than a year ago.

The feds investigated and ordered the psychiatric hospital to fix safety problems, including a pattern of retaliation against employees who speak out.

"I was scared to death, I thought they were going to come and arrest me," said hospital psychiatrist Dr. Joseph Wainer

But, two Western State employees - including Wainer - insist despite the federal scrutiny, the retaliation at the facility has not stopped.

"I think there is a long tradition to make people afraid, placing them under investigation makes them afraid, it made me afraid," said Wainer.

In April, the hospital put Dr. Wainer under investigation, alleging he inappropriately discharged a patient.

He was told the State Patrol is leading the investigation against him. Western State relies on troopers to handle some of its investigations.

"I can't talk about any case under investigation, but what I can tell you is every DSHS employee is afforded due process," said Adolfo Capestan who is the Communication Director for DSHS, which oversees the hospital.

Dr. Wainer denies any wrongdoing and thinks the investigation is really retaliation for him speaking out against the hospital in court, and in a newspaper editorial where he called hospital leadership, "authoritarian" and claimed employees were ignored, shamed and intimidated into silence.

Just three days after the editorial, Wainer - a ten-year employee and former chief of medical staff - said he was abruptly informed he was under investigation.

"Retaliation has no place in our business," said Capestany. "We know it's been an issue but it's something we're working on."

Capestany said he can't comment on the ongoing investigation or any claims made in response. But, he insists ridding the hospital of retaliation is a priority.

Retaliation is just one of the issues outlined in a list of health and safety violations that the hospital has been ordered to fix.

In mid-July, a surprise federal inspection determined Western State has made some progress, but still needs work. It has until mid-September to get it right or risk losing federal funding and accreditation

"I think whistle blowers are courageous people," said Paul Vilja, a registered nurse at Western State.

Vilja may be the king of whistle blowers at Western State. He's filed multiple complaints over his 30 years at the facility. He's never lost his job, but has been reassigned multiple times.

Vilja came under investigation in May for alleged misuse of state resources. He denies any wrongdoing and insists the investigation is punishment for testifying in court with Dr. Wainer.

Earlier this year, a judge issued an injunction against Western State, requiring the hospital to address retaliation issues. A hearing on the hospital's plan and policies is set for next month.

The injunction is a the result of a lawsuit won by former hospital worker Michael Quayle.

He sued Western State and claimed they fired him because he reported patient neglect. The jury awarded him a $1.1 million verdict last December.

"Both testified to the court that an injunction would be desirable and helpful to remedy this ongoing problem with retaliation that the hospital has had for a long period of time," said Quayle's attonry, James Beck.

Capenstany said communication retaliation intolerance and an open door policy have been paramount and they've issued new employee training guidelines.

"Making staff know, 'see something, say something,' without fear, not just of retaliation, but of not even being looked at differently," he said. "We want our staff to find the problems so we can fix them."

Dr. Wainer said that's why he spoke out. He believes the more the public knows, the more likely things will get better. He also insists the solution can be boiled down to one word: respect.

"I think it's about love and caring and that's pretty much it," said Wainer.

Beck said both employees are back on the job.

Nurse Vilga was told he was cleared from investigation, while Dr. Wainer's case is still under investigation.

Western State had submitted a plan of correction to the fed, with a decision on the hospital's status expected sometime next month. For now, the feds won't comment.

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