State hospital overseers face advocates’ criticism

From the Salem Statesman Journal, May 21, 2010

Federal court oversight is urged to improve care of patients

Two mental health advocates told the Oregon State Hospital advisory board Thursday that they do not trust state officials to make necessary improvements at the Salem psychiatric facility.

They repeated their call for Gov. Ted Kulongoski to enter into a court-enforceable agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice for terms of better patient care at OSH.

“For us, a straw broke when Mr. Perez died,” said Chris Bouneff, executive director of NAMI Oregon, a chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

[Moises] Perez, 42, died in his hospital bed on Oct. 17 but it took several hours before anybody noticed. An autopsy determined that he died of coronary artery disease.

After a five-month investigation, the State Office of Investigations and Training concluded the hospital was negligent and failed to provided adequate care for Perez before he died.

During Thursday’s meeting at OSH, Beckie Child, president of Mental Health America of Oregon and a member of the hospital advisory board, said Perez’s death came more than two years after federal investigators first visited the Salem psychiatric facility.

Child described hospital officials as nice people but said she had no faith in their ability to produce real reforms in patient care.

“He died on your watch,” she said in a remark directed at OSH officials at the meeting.

Child and Bouneff both described a court-enforceable agreement between the state and the feds as a mechanism to ensure that real improvements occur in patient care.

“Trying hard is not good enough,” Bouneff said. “For us, we want that enforceable piece.”

Last month, Kulongoski and state Human Services Director Bruce Goldberg both said federal court oversight of the hospital isn’t necessary.

Micky Logan, Oregon’s Senior Assistant Attorney General, told the advisory board that the governor doesn’t want the state-run psychiatric facility subject to federal court monitoring and enforcement action because it could drag out for 15 years or more, would crimp state authority over the institution and could prove extremely expensive.

In a bygone era, Oregon shelled out more than $100 million for improvements at the Fairview Training Center after the state entered into a court enforceable agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice for reforms at the Salem institution.

Kulongoski was Oregon’s attorney general at the time.

In 1985, the U.S. Justice Department threatened to sue the state over unsafe conditions at Fairview, a sprawling facility in southeast Salem that housed people with mental retardation and developmental disabilities.

Two years later, the federal government yanked Fairview’s funding. Reacting to the crisis, state officials entered into a court-enforceable consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. The document spelled out required reforms overseen by a court-appointed monitor, who made numerous state-paid trips to Oregon from her home in the Caribbean.

Expensive improvements dragged out for more than a decade, as Fairview residents gradually were moved into smaller community homes.

Sue Zakes, a former Fairview program director who now is acting forensics director at OSH, said the state essentially lost control of the institution.

“We were a DOJ-driven facility,” Zakes told the advisory board. “That was a very difficult time for all of us.”

The 92-year-old institution closed in 2000 and the Fairview campus was sold to private developers.