Mental health lawsuit can proceed

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The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled today that a lawsuit filed by four hospital systems against the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) was improperly dismissed.

Legacy Health, PeaceHealth, Providence Health & Services and St. Charles Health System filed the lawsuit in September 2022, alleging the OHA is failing to fulfill its duty to provide adequate access to care for people with serious mental illness. Today’s ruling returns the case to the United States District Court for the District of Oregon, where legal proceedings can continue.

The appeals court heard oral arguments on May 8 in Seattle. In oral arguments, OHA’s counsel conceded that the lack of resources for civilly committed individuals is a “long-standing, challenging problem facing Oregon.” Judge William Fletcher of the Ninth Circuit responded that “it’s a challenge because Oregon isn’t showing up.” In argument, OHA’s counsel further conceded that it has an obligation to ensure appropriate placement of civilly committed individuals.

“We are pleased with the court’s decision and we are optimistic that this lawsuit will result in a much-needed course correction by the OHA,” said Melissa Eckstein, president of Unity Center for Behavioral Health. “We originally took this action because the state of Oregon consistently violates the civil rights of vulnerable Oregonians by refusing to provide care intended to restore their freedom.”

Combined, the four hospital organizations operate more than half of the state’s psychiatric beds, which are designed solely for short-term acute care. However, civilly committed patients requiring long-term treatment are not transferred from hospitals to more appropriate facilities, as required by law. Instead, many of these patients are forced to stay in highly restrictive acute care facilities for weeks, months, or longer without a treatment plan tailored to their mental health needs.

“Community hospitals are not equipped, staffed or designed to provide long-term mental health care,” said Alicia Beymer, Chief Administrative Officer of PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center in RiverBend. “Despite the previous dismissal of our case, we felt compelled to appeal on behalf of the many vulnerable patients who are being denied appropriate care.”

In addition to ensuring that civically committed patients can receive the appropriate level of care, hospital systems strive to increase access to behavioral health units for individuals experiencing an acute mental health crisis. Earlier this year, the OHA published a report admitting that there is a serious shortage of capacity across Oregon to treat individuals needing both acute and long-term behavioral health care.

“The court’s ruling allows us to continue taking legal action to ensure that a functional mental health care system exists in Oregon,” said Robin Henderson, Chief Executive of Providence Behavioral Health. “Such a system and continuum of care must include safe residential treatment facilities as well as effective community-based services to meet the diverse needs of this vulnerable patient population. Oregonians will not be able to fully realize this system until the state fulfills its legally mandated role.”

Source: Legacy Health

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