Politics & Government

Last-minute legal stay means no jail for state hospital CEO – yet

Pierce County Court Commissioner Craig Adams granted a last-minute request for a stay of his June 10 order that required hospital CEO Cheryl Strange to report to jail Wednesday.
Pierce County Court Commissioner Craig Adams granted a last-minute request for a stay of his June 10 order that required hospital CEO Cheryl Strange to report to jail Wednesday. Staff file, 2013

The CEO of Western State Hospital isn’t going to jail just yet.

Pierce County Court Commissioner Craig Adams granted a last-minute request for a stay of his June 10 order that required hospital CEO Cheryl Strange to report to jail Wednesday. The stay also applies to Bea Dixon, director of Optum Pierce, the private entity that provides mental health services to Pierce County. Dixon was also named in Adams’ original order.

Rather than reporting to jail, the state and Optum will appear in court Tuesday, June 21 to argue against the order.

Rather than reporting to jail, the state and Optum will appear in court Tuesday, June 21 to argue against the order.

The dispute stems from a continuing shortage of beds at Western State, and the byproduct of patients in need of treatment being detained in hospital emergency rooms. The practice is known as “psychiatric boarding.” A 2013 ruling by Adams called the practice unconstitutional and a violation of the civil rights of patients who are legally entitled to mental health treatment when they are detained against their will.

The Washington State Supreme Court affirmed the spirit of Adams’ order in a 2014 ruling, but state lawmakers subsequently tweaked involuntary commitment laws to allow psychiatric boarding under certain circumstances.

The latest dispute involves a patient Adams ordered admitted to Western State in April, and again in May. The man still hasn’t been admitted; he’s on a waiting list that includes 73 people, according to figures cited Monday by The Seattle Times.

Adams ruled that the state’s failure to admit the man created a continuing violation of his constitutional rights, and found the state in contempt of court. Strange, however, refused to order the man’s admittance to the hospital, and said he was in stable condition.

Last week, Adams ruled that the state’s failure to admit the man created a continuing violation of his constitutional rights, and found the state in contempt of court. Strange, however, refused to order the man’s admittance to the hospital, and said he was in stable condition. Admitting him would require pushing him to the front of the waitlist line, ahead of other patients whose treatment needs are greater.

Adams told The News Tribune that the patient is a disabled veteran with symptoms of dementia who had received prior treatment in Olympia, then at the American Lake VA hospital in Pierce County. Following aggressive behavior at American Lake, the patient received a mental health evaluation and was ordered in early April to a single-bed certification at St. Clare Hospital in Lakewood.

The legal battle highlights the continuing struggles of state policymakers to address an overburdened mental health system. Western State Hospital is experiencing a staff shortage that led the facility to close a brand-new patient ward last year. Hospital leaders have also struggled to maintain accreditation with federal officials.

The June 21 hearing will address the contempt finding that orders Strange and Dixon to jail, but it’s a prelude to a related hearing set for June 27, which involves a larger group of patients still waiting for admission to the state hospital.

  Comments