Oregon State Hospital gets a break as federal judge decides against contempt finding

Oregon State Hospital in Salem (Malheur Enterprise/file)

After several months of noncompliance, wait times for patients being admitted to the Oregon State Hospital are back in compliance with a 2002 rule requiring the facility to take just seven days to admit patients who have been ordered there.

That’s according to a federal judge in Portland, who released an opinion Tuesday, Oct. 29, throwing out a legal challenge by Disability Rights Oregon, an advocacy group suing to hold the facility accountable for violating people’s rights by keeping them jailed while awaiting court-ordered treatment.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Michael Mosman affirmed a Sept. 12 denial of Disability Rights Oregon’s motion to hold the hospital in contempt. Mosman also denied the group’s request for legal expenses.

Disability Rights Oregon Legal Director Emily Cooper said the hospital fell out of compliance with the 2002 rule a year ago. The group met with hospital officials until April, when it decided to take legal action. The group wanted the hospital held in contempt for not complying with the rule. It also wanted the court to track how long it took patients to be admitted.

“We had no other option and were forced to go to court to get them to bring wait times down,” Cooper said. “While the order denies our motion, we’re so pleased that the hospital was able to reduce wait times because that’s ultimately what we wanted.”

According to records obtained by The Oregonian, between January and October of 2018 more than 200 patients were forced to wait longer than the seven days allotted by the rule. Some had to wait as many as 36 or 42 days. Records found that dozens of longer wait time cases were due to factors outside the hospital’s control, such as late-filed court orders and sheriffs departments transporting patients only on certain week days.

Hospital spokeswoman Rebeka Gipson-King said the issue was caused by an influx of aid-and-assist patients — those sent to the facility to recover so they can be competent to stand trial — which staff could not have foreseen and weren’t equipped to handle.

In June, Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen told Gov. Kate Brown about measures the hospital was taking to remedy the problem, including setting priorities for aid-and-assist admissions, as well as reducing the length of stay for patients to make room for new admissions and increasing community services for those who do not need hospital-level care.

Allen said he’s proud of the work the hospital has done for the past five months to bring the facility back in compliance.

“The judge’s decision affirms all the hard work that’s gone into addressing the hospitals’ capacity challenges, however, there’s still more work to be done to combat the criminalization of people who are homeless and mentally ill,” Allen said. “We look forward to continuing our partnerships with counties and local courts to ensure every person in Oregon who needs mental health care has timely access to treatment in their own community or, when necessary, at the state hospital.”

According to Cooper, Disability Rights Oregon isn’t taking the ruling as a defeat. She said the group was committed to making sure Oregonians have timely access to mental health care by continuing work on Senate Bill 937, which sent $10.7 million to community mental health programs where people who don’t need hospital-level care can be treated under aid-and-assist.

Cooper and her colleagues will be part of a Senate work group that convenes Wednesday, Nov. 20, during November legislative days. The group will look at the efficacy of Senate Bill 24, which raised the threshold for people ordered to the state hospital under aid-and-assist, requiring that a person pose imminent danger to themselves or others. Brown and the Oregon Health Authority proposed the legislation to address an influx of patients sent to the hospital by state judges.

“The fight is not over, and we are not dissuaded from our advocacy. We’re talking about our families, neighbors, friends and our community,” Cooper said. “One in every four adults age 20 to 40 has mental health issues, so that’s a lot of us. And that’s why we should care. This is us.” 

Contact Reporter Sam Stites: [email protected] or 971-255-2480.