Willingness to discuss OSH a good sign

Opinion editorial from the Salem Statesman Journal, December 26, 2010

Governor-elect John Kitzhaber must tackle the issue head-on

There is much on John Kitzhaber‘s to-do list as he prepares to return to the governor’s office. Yet, it’s evident that the governor-elect is well aware of the U.S. Department of Justice’s interest in the Oregon State Hospital.

Kitzhaber has indicated he might meet with U.S. justice officials, who have been closely monitoring the state hospital for the past four years. If that meeting happens, it won’t take place until February at the earliest, according to a Statesman Journal report by Alan Gustafson.

Any meeting would be an encouraging sign, given that outgoing Gov. Ted Kulongoski steadfastly has refused to meet with federal investigators. That stalemate in discussions hasn’t deterred the U.S. Department of Justice, which recently announced plans to expand its investigation to determine if the state is adequately providing community-based mental health services.

In 2006, federal investigators began examining whether patients were jeopardized because of poor conditions at the state hospital. The state, thanks to a big legislative push by Senate President Peter Courtney, has responded by finishing the first phase of a new Oregon State Hospital in Salem.

Federal investigators remain skeptical that the state has delivered, which is why a settlement hasn’t been reached between the U.S. Department of Justice and the state.

No settlement creates the possibility of a costly lawsuit, which wouldn’t help Oregon’s financial cause.

Kitzhaber likely recognizes that the state doesn’t have much flexibility because of the state’s economy and budget challenges.

It’s also significant that Oregon Attorney General John Kroger is involved in these discussions – another sign that the state is taking a different approach to dealing with the feds’ concerns about mental health programming.

Why Kulongoski’s administration wasn’t more proactive during the investigation remains baffling, but that’s less important now. Kitzhaber must recognize that it doesn’t hurt to have a face-to-face meeting to hopefully resolve this long-simmering dispute.