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Oregon State Hospital changes transport policy after dangerous, bizarre escape

An outdoor area inside the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, March 8, 2023. On average the Salem facility has capacity to care for 559 patients.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
An outdoor area inside the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, March 8, 2023. On average the Salem facility has capacity to care for 559 patients.

Federal regulators have given the Oregon State Hospital just 23 days to change how it transports patients, after a daring August escape left one caregiver with minor injuries and a state van stolen.

In a statement Friday, the Oregon Health Authority said a surveyor from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found the state hospital’s secure transportation policies are lacking. If the hospital doesn’t make changes, it risks losing money through Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements — a loss that would amount to millions of dollars each year.

“We appreciate the findings the investigator provided us,” Dolly Matteucci, the State Hospital superintendent, said in a written statement. “We are taking steps right away to reduce the possibility that an unauthorized leave could occur during transport and potentially put themselves, staff or members of the community at risk.”

Matteucci does not cite specific incidents or concerns that led to the federal review, but it comes just two weeks after 39-year-old Christopher Lee Pray managed to steal a state van from hospital employees who had taken him for medical care on Aug. 31. He then drove that van on a high speed chase along Interstate 5. While Pray managed to escape police in that chase, he was arrested the next day, after he attempted to swim across a shallow body of water in North Portland and became trapped in deep mud.

The Oregon State Hospital is a state-run psychiatric hospital that houses people in the criminal justice system who need treatment for mental illness, as well as other Oregonians who are committed involuntarily.

Friday’s finding is not the first time Oregon’s State Hospital system has faced federal scrutiny. In 2021, a patient receiving care after an arson conviction managed to escape for several weeks from the Junction City campus. That facility faced decertification in 2022 after the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found staff had failed to adequately follow up on issues like sexual assault or other violence, and generally lacked adequate training on how to handle dangerous situations that can arise.

Until March, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office had provided some assistance transporting patients for State Hospital staff. That agreement fell apart due to a deepening rift between the county and federal U.S. District Judge Michael Mosman, according to the Lund Report. Mosman has previously ruled that some State Hospital patients need to be released from custody within certain time limits if their criminal cases do not move forward. Some Oregon district attorneys, including Marion County District Attorney Paige Clarkson, have staunchly disagreed with Mosman’s view on the backlog for psychiatric care at the Oregon State Hospital.

State Hospital administrators said they plan to provide a corrective action plan related to the secure transportation issue early next week. The hospital would be subject to a random inspection later if that plan receives approval.

Ryan Haas