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Judge signals Oregon’s psychiatric hospital could have to speed up admissions, add capacity

The Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon, is pictured on Thursday, June 27, 2019.
The Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon, is pictured on Thursday, June 27, 2019.

A federal judge in Oregon gave the state’s psychiatric hospital until Dec. 3 to speed up admissions and increase capacity for people in the criminal justice system deemed too mentally ill to continue with their case.

Since May 2020, the Oregon State Hospital has been under a temporary modified admissions order, allowing it to deviate from a longstanding court order that required admissions within seven days of a judge ordering a defendant to receive treatment at the hospital.

U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman granted the state permission to temporarily violate the seven-day order because of the global pandemic. The hospital moved to a model that allowed for groups of patients to quarantine in a cohort, slowing admissions.

Defendants ordered to the state hospital in Salem come from local jails, where their mental health can deteriorate while remaining in custody. In 2002, a judge found that forcing defendants to wait longer than seven days violates their constitutional rights.

During a hearing Wednesday, Mosman said come December, he would almost certainly return to the original injunction that ordered admissions within seven days.

“In my view, it is extremely unlikely that will be extended,” Mosman said of his temporary order.

Last month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated Mosman’s May 2020 order saying it lacked “meaningful parameters” and ordered him to find a more permanent solution.

Attorneys for Metropolitan Public Defender and Disability Rights Oregon had asked Mosman to immediately return to the seven-day injunction.

“The pandemic, while ongoing, is no longer the cause of the admissions delays at the state hospital,” said Jesse Merrithew, an attorney with Metropolitan Public Defender.

But the hospital is making the argument that the pandemic is still stretching its staff.

“There simply is more demand for [Oregon State Hospital] beds than OSH has beds to fill,” the state argued in court documents. “This means that patients must wait until a bed can be found — and, unfortunately, those patients are waiting where they were at the time they were committed: in county jails.”

The Oregon Health Authority is trying to open 48 additional beds at its campus in Junction City. The state Legislature provided the agency with $31 million during the last legislative session to do just that.

But the process has been slow, Allen testified at Wednesday’s hearing. He said there are “huge challenges” in finding health care staff and that “those are driven largely by the pandemic.”

On top of recruiting challenges, health care workers are also leaving.

“Because the pandemic has ground on as long as it has, there’s a huge amount of burnout,” Allen testified.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting