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As hospitals ask for second look at civil commitment lawsuit, opponents say it’s nothing new

Disability Rights Oregon says hospitals are making the same argument, just without “disparaging” patients
St. Charles Health System in Bend is among the four large hospital systems involved in ongoing litigation with the state over housing civilly committed mental health patients. | COURTESY OF ST. CHARLES HEALTH
July 11, 2023

A civil rights group and state attorneys say a federal judge should not take a second look at a lawsuit by hospitals that blames the state for forced boarding of people experiencing mental illness.

U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman had already thrown out the hospitals’ lawsuit, but attorneys for the hospital systems recently asked him to reconsider, saying he’d improperly failed to allow them to amend their suit and address his criticisms.

In motions filed this week, however, advocates and the Oregon Department of Justice assured Mosman that the hospitals’ lawsuit is too flawed to proceed.

The dispute over an unusual request from Legacy Health, PeaceHealth, St. Charles Health System and Providence Health & Services again highlights the lack of choices the hospital systems have been left by the state’s shortage of behavioral health treatment facilities. Private hospitals can either continue to care for the challenging and expensive group of patients or, as a state attorney suggested, discharge them with nowhere to go. 

“Plaintiffs cannot just discharge civilly committed patients,” reads a brief filed by the hospital systems last month. “Plaintiffs must adhere to several ethical, state, and federal regulations and obligations to maintain licensure and avoid fines.”

The hospitals argued in their recent filing they should have the chance to bring an amended version of their earlier lawsuit that would make the case that “discharging civilly committed patients to the street while they are a danger to themselves or others or are unable to care for their basic needs would jeopardize Plaintiffs’ licensures and ability to conduct business, harm their reputation, and subject them to fines or loss of funding.” 

Additionally, the hospitals stated in the filing that even if they lost their licenses to provide acute care to civilly committed patients “there would be nowhere to send those patients, and they would simply be left in other parts of the hospital.”

Filings from Disability Rights Oregon and state attorneys argue that the hospitals’ lawsuit will just be a retread. 

“The amended complaint does not contain meaningfully new allegations regarding those patients, raise new claims regarding their rights, nor explore how the conflict of interest has been corrected or addressed,” reads the filing for Disability Rights Oregon. “The most remarkable change in the Second Amended Complaint is that much of the original language disparaging the patients has largely been removed — removing some outward signs of the conflict but not the conflict itself.”

U.S. Judge Michael Mosman in May dismissed the hospital system’s lawsuit that argued that the Oregon Health Authority was violating the rights of civilly committed patients by not providing adequate treatment options. Mosman agreed with Disability Rights Oregon and state attorneys that the hospitals didn’t have legal standing to advocate on behalf of patients they complained were costly to care for and harmed staff. He also agreed that the hospitals were voluntarily taking on the patients. 

Filings from state attorneys and Disability Rights Oregon argue that the hospitals still don’t have legal standing to bring a new version of their lawsuit. 

“There are no allegations that OHA could have forced Health Systems to apply for certification to treat civilly committed patients had they not otherwise voluntarily done so,” reads the filing from state attorneys. “Instead, they seek declaratory relief based on a hypothetical alternate reality not before this Court (and not in existence).”

You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via Twitter @jakethomas2009.