Federal judge won’t hold state mental hospital in contempt for wait times

Built in 1883, the Oregon State Hospital has a 147-acre campus facing Center Street in northeast Salem. 

Oregon’s top health administrator has asked state lawmakers for $20 million to help ensure that people who need mental health treatment get it, particularly those who have been charged with a crime.

Monday’s request comes after more than a year of struggles by state health officials to handle an ever-growing volume of criminal defendants needing treatment for schizophrenia and other disorders.

Lawmakers must decide whether to take up the request as they meet starting Feb. 3 for a 35-day short session.

Under a 2003 federal court order, defendants deemed in need of treatment before proceeding through the criminal justice system must be sent to the Oregon State Hospital within seven days of a judge’s order. But patients have repeatedly had to wait longer than that when the hospital has been full. The crisis was highlighted in a January 2019 investigation by The Oregonian.

The money sought by the Oregon Health Authority would approach the capacity crisis from three core angles, spelled out in a letter from the agency’s director, Patrick Allen.

The largest portion of the request — $13.8 million — would go to add beds throughout the state’s mental health system so people with mental illness have somewhere to go. That would include $11.5 million to staff two existing residential centers for a total of 50 new beds, as well as $2.3 million to start working on three new residential centers for a combined 48 beds.

Another $4.1 million would help the so-called aid-and-assist defendants get treatment in the community, including legal skills training and case coordination.

About $1.6 million would create a team of state employees to help coordinate the many local mental health systems where people get help. That team would also do bigger-picture analyses to try to reduce recidivism. Another $500,000 Allen requested would go toward a study of why the aid-and-assist population has been growing.

The state has been in compliance with the 2003 court order since July, but just barely. For 10 days last month, the state hospital stopped accepting patients who were found to be a danger to themselves or others but hadn’t been charged with a crime. At the time of the director’s letter to lawmakers, 59 patients were waiting in local hospitals to get into the state hospital.

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