A controversial court order intended to free up beds at the state’s major psychiatric facility is bringing it closer to addressing issues raised in a long-running civil rights case, Oregon State Hospital Superintendent Dolly Matteucci said.
Matteucci made the comments to a legislative panel concerning the effects of a sweeping order federal Judge Michael Mosman issued in September setting limits on how long some patients can be kept at the hospital.
“It did increase flow both into and out of Oregon State Hospital,” Matteucci told the Oregon Health and Behavioral Health Committee on Wednesday. She added that the order has meant “people are coming in faster and getting out faster, and we’re able to serve more folks.”
The order has more than halved the wait list for what are known as “aid and assist” patients, she said, referring to people who need treatment in order to be considered competent to assist in their defense against criminal charges. Matteucci cited data showing that in November 2022 there were 104 aid and assist patients waiting in jail to be admitted to the hospital. By May, the number was 46, she said.
Matteucci added that in December 2022 people coming into the hospital were waiting in jail for an average of 39.2 days, which she said decreased to 16.9 days by May.
“So the federal order is moving us towards compliance,” she said.
Civil rights advocates say the edict is needed to bring the state in alignment with a previous court order to stop people with mental illness from being confined to jail instead of getting treatment.
But Matteucci added that counties vary with resources to “support people with difficult complex behavioral health conditions,” an acknowledgment of criticisms by prosecutors, some advocates and lawmakers that the order meant patients would be released to communities who were dangerous to themselves and others
“I acknowledge that not everyone would consider this success,” she said.
State Rep. Rob Nosse, a Portland Democrat who chairs the committee, said he is “not a fan” of the Mosman order. But he said he understood why civil rights groups sued the state over admissions of aid-and-assist patients.
“They need to be restored to competency and put on trial,” he said. “They’ve been accused of something; they have the right to a trial.”
Mosman issued the order in response to litigation by Disability Rights Oregon charging that the state hospital had fallen out of compliance with a 2002 federal ruling requiring the psychiatric facility to accept within seven days people accused of crimes and found unable to aid and assist in their defense.
State Rep. Ed Diehl, R-Scio, asked Matteucci if she thought the Mosman order would remain in place after its scheduled one-year review in September. Matteucci replied that current projections show the state hospital meeting the target by later this year.
Matteucci also cited figures showing the number of aid and assist patients at the state hospital soared from around 100 in April 2012 to just under 400 by December 2022. During that time frame the number of civilly committed patients, people a judge deemed unable to care for themselves because of a mental disorder, dropped from around 200 to 13 due to the hospital’s responsibility to prioritize justice-involved patients for admission.
“There has been a huge impact on our staff in terms of the change in percentages of the patient population,” she said. “The focus of treatment is very different for individuals under an aid and assist (order) because it is to stabilize them and to return them for their day in court.”
She said the hospital has had to change its units and beds in order to get patients in and out faster.
The hearing came a day after Mosman threw out a lawsuit from four health systems that argued they were being saddled with civil commitment patients because aid and assist patients were taking priority at the state hospital.
State Rep. Thuy Tran, D-Portland, said that she’s heard concerns from constituents about the lack of support for civilly committed people.
She said families can’t support loved ones who end up “out on the street and living a life that is harmful to them.”