A legal battle over admissions policies at Western State Hospital in Lakewood escalated Wednesday, as a Pierce County court commissioner underlined his position that state leaders are failing hospital patients.
Over objections from state attorneys, commissioner Craig Adams upheld his July 8 ruling appointing a “special master” to oversee sweeping reforms at the troubled hospital.
“We cannot be like Nero and continue fiddling while Rome burns,” Adams said. “We cannot continue to lock people up and do so without providing meaningful treatment for them.”
Wednesday’s hearing marked an attempt by state attorneys to seek reconsideration of Adams’ earlier order. A cluster of lawyers attended, including representatives of hospital patients and the Washington State Hospital Association, as well as Optum, the private entity the state contracts with to provide mental health service in Pierce County.
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We cannot be like Nero and continue fiddling while Rome burns. We cannot continue to lock people up and do so without providing meaningful treatment for them.
Court commissioner Craig Adams
Lawyers for the patients and the hospital association backed Adams’ order in brief statements, saying they supported his position that the court was acting within its authority.
Lawyers for Optum sided with state attorneys, taking the opposite position but saying little.
At its heart, the debate hinges on “psychiatric boarding” — the practice of detaining mental patients in local hospitals while they wait for room at Western State, even when ordered into treatment by a court.
Adams ruled in 2013 that the practice was unconstitutional, a decision later upheld by a unanimous Washington State Supreme Court.
Since then, the state has tweaked admission policies and tried to address capacity problems at the hospital, but boarding continues in various forms, rekindling the debate.
In recent months, the arguments have grown tougher; Adams raised the ante in June when he ordered Western State CEO Cheryl Strange to jail if the hospital continued to refuse to admit a patient previously ordered into treatment. That order was stayed on appeal.
The state has argued it has neither the staff nor the beds to accommodate all the patients ordered to treatment at Western State, citing a backlog of patients waiting to be released, among other factors.
On Wednesday, attorneys for the state argued that the Legislature has plans to study the issue and develop recommendations.
The state has argued it has neither the staff nor the beds to accommodate all the patients ordered to treatment at Western State Hospital, citing a backlog of patients waiting to be released, among other factors. Wednesday, attorneys for the state argued that the Legislature has plans to study the issue and develop recommendations.
Assistant attorney general Robert Antanaitis spoke for the state, arguing in essence that Adams lacked the authority to order systemic reforms such as oversight by a special master.
Adams replied that state attorneys have made similar arguments for 30 years in multiple court cases.
“There has been a pervasive institutional ennui toward change, and this has resulted in people being deprived of their liberty on the false promise of treatment,” he said.
The group of attorneys couldn’t agree on who should function as a special master.
Adams named Jeffrey Sconyers, a former general counsel at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Whether Sconyers plays his appointed role is still uncertain. State attorneys have options to appeal.
In one scenario, they could seek a revision of Adams’ order within 10 days, which would shift the argument into Pierce County Superior Court. A similar pattern unfolded after Adams’ 2013 decision regarding psychiatric boarding, which was upheld at multiple levels.