Kitzhaber, Feds could meet soon about OSH

From the Salem Statesman Journal, April 25, 2011

Oregon State Hospital has been in the crosshairs of federal civil-rights investigators since mid-2006, and there appears to be no end in sight to the long-running inquiry.

From Library of Dust, but David Maisel

From Library of Dust, but David Maisel

In fact, federal lawyers at the forefront of the investigation made two recent trips to Salem to gather more information about Oregon’s main mental hospital and other aspects of the state’s mental-health system, email correspondence obtained by the Statesman Journal shows.

The first visit occurred in February when lawyers from the U.S. Department of Justice met at the state hospital with a number of patients to hear their concerns and complaints.

Patients vented frustration about long stints of hospitalization and restrictive release practices that keep patients cooped up on psychiatric wards after therapists have found them fit to be released.

During the second trip to Salem, visitors from the U.S. DOJ spent three days, April 6-8, conducting interviews with at least 10 state mental health administrators. The talks took place in a conference room at the Commerce Building.

State officials briefed the federal contingent on various mental-health programs, state hospital release practices and funding issues that loom as the state faces a $3.5 billion shortfall in its budget for 2011-13.

Ten administrators were listed on a roster of scheduled participants for the three-day series of interviews. Among them: Richard Harris, director of the Addictions and Mental Health Division; Mary Claire Buckley, executive director of the Psychiatric Security Review Board; and Nena Strickland, deputy superintendent of the state hospital.

Heading up the federal team was Robert Koch, a trial attorney for the Special Litigation Section of the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. DOJ.

The Statesman Journal obtained back-and-forth correspondence between state and federal lawyers through a public records request filed with the Oregon Department of Justice. The email traffic stretches from January through the middle of last week.

Much of the correspondence focused on scheduling matters and other arrangements for the two recent visits.

Other exchanges pointed to a potential meeting between Gov. John Kitzhaber and Thomas Perez, head of the federal Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division.

State and federal lawyers expressed mutual interest in setting up such a meeting, potentially opening up a new, top-level line of communication in the protracted investigation.

Former Gov. Ted Kulongoski previously spurned an invitation for a face-to-face meeting with federal officials investigating OSH.

As it stands, no date has been set for a meeting between Kitzhaber and Perez.

“We’ve always been open to a meeting, but we continue to discuss when it should occur,” Tony Green, a spokesman for Attorney General John Kroger, said last week in an email to the newspaper.

The state has placed a pre-condition on any meeting between Kitzhaber and Perez, as outlined Wednesday in an email sent to the feds by John Dunbar, the attorney in charge of the Special Litigation Unit of the Oregon Justice Department.

Dunbar wrote: “I have checked further about a meeting between Tom Perez and Governor Kitzhaber. We think it would be best to hold the meeting after we learn more about USDOJ’s specific concerns and any findings … .

“Of course, we believe that given what USDOJ learned about during its most recent visit, including the AMHI program (Adult Mental Health Initiative), the Oregon Health Plan, the child wraparound program, and other Oregon programs, USDOJ should not issue findings. In any event, we look forward to hearing from USDOJ about follow-up information.”

This June will mark the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the federal investigation of the state hospital.

In 2008, the feds threatened legal action if Oregon did not fix numerous defects in patient care and hospital conditions. The state responded by launching new treatment programs, hiring hundreds of new hospital employees and moving forward with construction of a new 620-bed, $280 million replacement hospital in central Salem.

Despite reform-minded efforts, the federal Justice Department put the state on notice in November that it was widening the investigation, digging into concerns beyond patient care and hospital conditions.

The expanded investigation has been scrutinizing how long patients stay at OSH, the availability of mental health services for people coming out of the hospital and those at risk of being institutionalized, and whether the state is complying with federal law, which requires that government dollars support the most appropriate care for people with disabilities in the least restrictive settings.

Mental health advocates maintain that Oregon spends too much on hospitalization for people with mental illnesses and not enough on community programs.

Legislative action will occur soon on budget cuts that loom for the state hospital and other parts of the mental health system. Kitzhaber’s proposed budget for 2011-13 called for $36 million worth of general fund spending cuts at OSH. Mental health administrators are putting together a package of specific cuts for upcoming review by the Legislature’s budget-writing committee.