Oregon health systems say state is illegally leaving patients with severe mental illness in acute care hospitals

Three major Oregon health systems are suing their home state over patients with severe mental illnesses the organizations say should legally be cared for in specialized facilities rather than in their acute care hospitals.

State law permits individuals who are a danger to themselves or others to be “civilly committed” for involuntary treatment lasting up to 180 days. They may first be admitted to an acute care facility should they require urgent medical care or short-term stabilization.

But Providence Health & Services, Legacy Health and PeaceHealth said that the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) has not fulfilled its legal requirement to transfer these patients to a more “appropriate facility” for behavioral care once they have been stabilized.

“It leads to a situation in which vulnerable Oregonians are denied the care that justifies their commitment in the first place and that they are constitutionally entitled to,” Robin Henderson, M.D., chief executive of behavioral health for Providence in Oregon, said in a joint release issued by the three organizations.

Behavioral health units in community hospitals are structured to evaluate, stabilize and discharge patients in crisis, the systems wrote, whereas long-term settings can offer the privacy and freedom needed to recover.

The health systems said over 500 Oregonians with severe mental illness are civilly committed to OHA annually. They estimated that “hundreds” of these patients are being kept in acute care facilities rather than the more appropriate long-term care settings.

“Because their rights are not being protected by the state, some patients who have severe mental illness and may be violent have been forced to stay for as long as a year at community hospitals,” Alicia Beymer, chief administrative officer for PeaceHealth’s Sacred Heart University District, said in the press release. “This is unsafe for patients, those charged with their care and our communities.”

The health systems also said that OHA’s failure to transfer the committed patients “has negatively affected the hospitals’ capacity to care for other patients experiencing acute mental health crises in their communities.

“Oregon is in the middle of an unprecedented mental health crisis, and community hospitals are desperately needed to treat and stabilize other vulnerable patients in crisis, many of whom are also struggling with substance abuse disorders and houselessness,” they said.

A spokesperson for OHA who provided comment to The Oregonian did not directly address the lawsuit but said that the organization and its long-term care-capable Oregon State Hospital “remain focused on the care of the hospital’s patients and supporting them on their road to recovery as they search for a new path forward.”

The health systems said their suit seeks declaratory and injunctive relief rather than compensatory damages.