In the latest escalation over admissions delays, the Oregon State Hospital is facing a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of two people ordered into state care months ago, but who have still not been able to access the facility.

The men have been stuck inside the Multnomah County Jail for half the year or longer, where their mental health has declined. According to attorneys representing the men, one is on suicide watch and the other got into a fight because he was not receiving proper treatment for his mental illness.

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An attorney for the men is asking a federal judge to intervene and force the state’s psychiatric hospital to admit the men for the mental health treatment the state courts have determined they need. In March and May, the men were found guilty except for insanity for crimes, and ordered to the state hospital to serve their sentences.

As of late last month, 26 people statewide found guilty except for insanity were waiting in jails for admission to the hospital, according to an Oct. 27 record filed by the state in a separate federal court case. At that time, 19 people had been waiting for more than 100 days. One person in Jackson County had been waiting 283 days, according to the document.

Aria Seligmann, a spokeswoman for the state hospital, declined to comment on the pending litigation. Starting Monday, the hospital plans to open 24 long-awaited beds at its Junction City campus for patients found guilty except for insanity. An additional 24 beds in Junction City are expected to be available next year.

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

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

Bryan M. Vance / OPB

It’s not clear what that could mean for the litigation involving the two men in the Multnomah County Jail. The lawsuit names Oregon Health Authority Dir. Patrick Allen and hospital superintendent Dolores Matteucci as defendants.

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“The defendants’ failure to transport plaintiffs to the Oregon State Hospital has led to plaintiffs’ indefinite confinement in a punitive jail setting, without mental health treatment, in violation of their due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution,” wrote Ethan Levi, who is representing the two men in the case.

The federal litigation is the latest flashpoint over admission delays to the state hospital. State health officials have said those delays were brought on by the pandemic, staff shortages and hiring challenges that have delayed expanding the number of beds at Junction City. State lawmakers, attorneys and mental health advocates say the larger problem is that there are not enough community based health and housing services to prevent people from interacting with the criminal justice system and becoming hospitalized.

During the last legislative session, Oregon lawmakers vowed to spend $350 million to improve mental and behavioral health services. But those longer term fixes do little for people currently in jail awaiting admission to the state hospital.

The case involving the two men stuck in the Multnomah County Jail also has exposed the state’s limited mental health treatment options for people who have not been convicted of a crime.

The Oregon Department of Justice, which represents the hospital, argued in court filings that the hospital had to prioritize so-called “aid and assist” patients. That group is people deemed so mentally ill they cannot continue with their criminal case until they receive treatment at the state hospital. For nearly 20 years, the state has been required to admit those patients within seven days of a judge’s order, though that requirement has been temporarily relaxed during the pandemic.

The state argued it was at 95% capacity and couldn’t admit more patients. It also argued a federal judge had ordered the hospital to prioritize aid and assist patients.

Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Nan Waller rejected those arguments. She ruled state health officials had made choices that confined the two men “to jail for an indefinite period of time during which they are neither getting treatment” nor a hearing that would release them to a local treatment center.

In September, Waller found the state hospital in contempt and imposed fines for not following her order to admit the two men. Last month, in a highly unusual move, she found the state hospital in contempt of her original contempt order and increased the daily fines.

The sheriff’s office received a check from the state hospital on Monday for $106,400, a spokesman confirmed. Waller directed the money be used to train corrections staff in how to better support those in custody with mental illnesses.

The overall backlog for mental health services is putting more pressure on local jails. Just this week, a grand jury report on Multnomah County’s jails found crucial staffing shortages and facilities that were “beginning to serve as a de facto mental health hospital, despite not being adequately equipped to serve such a function.”

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

Judge increases fines, pressure on Oregon State Hospital as it fails to admit defendants

In an unusual move, the Multnomah County Circuit Court judge found the Oregon State Hospital in contempt of a previous contempt order for failing to transport two defendants from the Multnomah County Jail who were found guilty except for insanity. The two men have been waiting for admission for months and now fines have increased to $2,500 per day, per defendant as long as they wait in jail.