The Oregon State Hospital can take longer to admit patients with mental illness, at least temporarily, after a federal court ruling Tuesday.
A federal judge in Portland temporarily modified a long-standing court order that requires the Oregon State Hospital to admit mentally ill inmates within one week of them being found unable to aid in the defense of their criminal case.
Following the court hearing disability rights advocates said they plan to appeal the decision.
On March 16, the state hospital closed its doors over concerns about COVID-19 getting inside the facility. That created an immediate backlog of would-be patients, who are instead languishing in local jails where they often get sicker, according to attorneys representing them. That prompted legal action by Metropolitan Public Defender and Disability Rights Oregon, which represents and advocates for many of the people stuck in jails.
Last month, the hospital restarted admitting patients slowly, while also monitoring them for COVID-19 in new admissions units before they join the rest of the hospital population. But that process has added delays.
In a court filing Monday, the state said the number of people waiting in jails across the state to get admitted stood at 56 — though six of those would-be patients have been waiting for less than a week. Several inmates have been waiting 30 days or more, according to the state's court filing.
“It’s necessary in light of the pandemic to modify the injunction and I intend to keep a close watch on the efforts made to make this happen as quickly as possible,” U.S. District Court Judge Michael Mosman said before ruling Tuesday. “It is, of course, a troubling and concerning issue about a very vulnerable population in a difficult time.”
The federal court order dates back to 2002. By modifying it, the state hospital is effectively no longer violating the law by failing to admit people within one week.
The state hospital’s plan to reduce the waitlist rests on its ability to open yet another admissions unit where incoming patients can be quarantined.
“I have also been working on a plan to open up a third admissions unit, which I hope can begin accepting patients by June 1,” Deputy Superintendent Derek Wehr wrote in a declaration filed with the court. “As before, I cannot testify with absolute certainty as to when OSH will be able to return to admitting patients within seven days.”
Wehr estimated the waitlist for admissions could be cleared by late June.
Mosman said the state was doing a “remarkable” job. He noted that the modification was temporary.
“I’m impressed with what’s been done,” Mosman said. “Without a rise in new admissions, this should be over with by as early as June ... and move back to the earlier seven-day time period as quickly as humanly possible.”
Attorneys for Metropolitan Public Defender, one of the plaintiffs in the case, said they plan to appeal.
“The district court’s decision allows the state to continue to violate the rights of vulnerable people held in jails around the state for an indefinite amount of time,” attorney Jesse Merrithew said. “It is unlawful and morally unacceptable to allow the burden and risks of the state’s response to this global pandemic to fall disproportionately on the most vulnerable people in our community.”
Merrithew has filed three petitions with the Oregon Supreme Court to get individuals waiting for admission to the state hospital released from jails.
Meanwhile, Disability Rights Oregon, another plaintiff in the case, said they were waiting for Mosman's written order "before considering all of our options after reviewing it."
Emily Cooper, the organization's legal director, said that leaving defendants in jail who are ordered to receive mental health treatment at the state hospital is profoundly harmful and violates their rights.
"We are a nation of laws and the Constitutional rights of Oregonians are not something you set-aside during a crisis," Cooper said in a statement.
Mosman set the next hearing for Aug. 3 to review the temporary order, but said he wanted to hear an update from the state hospital every three weeks.