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State officials, advocacy group want hospitals’ lawsuit over psychiatric gridlock dismissed

Hospitals had blamed harm to psychiatric patients on state inaction, but new court filings fault hospitals themselves.
Oregon State Hospital in Salem. | OREGON HEALTH AUTHORITY
December 29, 2022

Lawyers for the Oregon Health Authority have asked a judge to throw out a lawsuit from three hospital systems that claim they’re being unduly saddled with civilly committed mental health patients. 

The group Disability Rights Oregon has also asked to weigh in, arguing the hospitals aren’t looking out for patients’ interests and that their lawsuit amounts to a confession of poor care.

In essence, the hospitals had blamed the state for human rights violations, but now the new filings blame the hospitals themselves.

The latest filings come after Legacy Health, Providence Health & Services and PeaceHealth in September sued the health authority in U.S. District Court in Eugene alleging it was violating the civil rights of patients by keeping them in hospital acute care facilities when they would be better treated at the Oregon State Hospital or other long-term care facilities.

Last week state lawyers arguing that previous court rulings and Oregon law undermine the hospitals’ allegation they’re being burdened by the health authority not meeting its obligation to find long-term placements for patients stuck in acute care units. 

“At most, Plaintiffs allege that their beds are not as good as beds at the Oregon State Hospital or other placements and that they are not compensated enough for treating civilly committed patients,” reads the motion, asking Judge Michael Mosman to dismiss the lawsuit. “These allegations do not amount to any viable claim for Relief.”

As for the hospitals’ claim of being “forced” to house civilly committed patients, the state lawyers submitted the hospitals formally applied to do so— arguing the hospitals had acted voluntarily.

The legal jousting comes as Oregon has struggled to find enough beds at the state-run psychiatric hospital or other settings for mentally ill people who’ve been ordered to receive treatment. 

It follows years of litigation over the Oregon State Hospital’s handling of admissions of patients ordered by the criminal justice system to undergo treatment. Mosman in September issued a landmark order that set a timeframe for how long the state hospital can take to restore certain patients to being able to aid in their defense, while establishing a waiting list for new patients.

Hospitals claimed civil rights violations

The trio of health care systems argued in their September lawsuit that acute care facilities should be only the first stop to stabilize civil commitment patients. But instead hospitals have been forced to house these patients for months, sometimes their entire commitment period. 

The lawsuit complained that hospital staff have been put in danger while caring for aggressive patients as the health authority ignored calls for help. It cited examples, including that one patient gave a nurse a concussion and threatened to kill staff during a five-month stay. 

The state’s recent motion to dismiss the case cites provisions in Oregon law giving the health authority broad authority regarding where to place patients who have been civilly committed or who are receiving emergency care.

The filing from the state’s lawyers also points out that Mosman’s order ties the state hospital’s hands with a patient wait list. 

Whereas the hospitals has positioned themselves as advocating on behalf of patients, not just themselves, the filing from state lawyers disputes that — and instead argues the hospitals want to “exclude civilly committed persons from receiving care at their hospitals to avoid incurring ‘expenses for additional staff and workers’ compensation costs, property damage, and room closures.’”

On the same day the state filed its motion, Dec. 22, Disability Rights Oregon, an advocacy group that’s previously sued on behalf of state hospital patients, asked the court for permission to file a brief in support of the health authority’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

The group’s concludes that the interests of the hospitals involved in the lawsuit and civilly committed patients are “fundamentally in conflict,” adding that the hospitals’ lawsuit “essentially confessed in their own pleadings to routine violations of patient rights by imposing unnecessarily restrictive conditions on them.”

 The hospitals, according to the group’s brief, “declare on their own behalf that their rights are violated any time they must care for an unwanted patient.” 

Disability Rights Oregon also wrote in the brief that while more civilly committed patients are being placed in community hospitals, “no one has prohibited community hospitals from improving their overall care for behavioral health patients.”

Lawyers for the hospitals have yet to file a response.

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