After a national search, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has tapped an insider to run the state’s largest agency. Western State Hospital CEO Cheryl Strange will take over as secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services in September.
In his announcement, Inslee said Strange will bring “the strategic management skills” along with “the compassion and care” to head DSHS.
The agency serves about a third of Washington’s 7 million residents with an array of programs including food and cash assistance, child welfare services and care for the developmentally disabled.
DSHS has a roughly $15 billion, two-year budget and 19,000 employees. For the past 18 months, DSHS has been operating with temporary leadership since Secretary Kevin Quigley left in February of 2016.
As CEO of Western State Hospital, Strange has been charged with leading a turnaround of that troubled facility.
In a message to DSHS staff, Strange said Western State will remain a top priority for her and pledged to work quickly to appoint a new CEO of the hospital.
“Please rest assured that this is job one for me,” Strange wrote. “But, also know that as the DSHS Secretary, I will continue to share responsibility, along with each of you, to ensure that we do not lose sight of our common quest to Transform Western.”
In June 2016, DSHS and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) entered into a 13-month Systems Improvement Agreement designed to allow Western State to “fix systemic operating problems and put more focus on patient treatment and overall safety.”
The move followed a string of high-profile incidents including assaults on staff and patient escapes that put the hospital’s federal funding in jeopardy.
As CEO of Western State, Strange has worked to improve patient care along with safety and security at the facility. A big part of that effort has been to try to fill a number of job vacancies that contributed to the hospital’s precarious status with the federal government.
The hospital is currently operating with a 60-day extension of its agreement with CMS as it continues to try to meet federal standards.
Strange takes over DSHS at a time of flux. Next year DSHS will hand off responsibility for child welfare to the state’s new Department of Children Youth and Families.