Oregon State Hospital appears to be on track

Unsigned editorial from The Oregonian, August 2 2009

Granted, anything could go wrong at any time as federal investigators visit Salem to look into recent reforms at the Oregon State Hospital.

A patient or staff member could be seriously hurt in a violent encounter. An inmate could escape or severely harm herself or die under controversial circumstances.

Such risks are inherent in the hospital’s decades-old culture of violence, but it’s a culture that appears to be changing at a promising pace. In last Sunday’s editions, The Oregonian’s Michelle Cole offered a litany of such changes as U.S. Department of Justice investigators prepared to begin their first comprehensive evaluation of the 126-year-old state mental institution since November 2006.

Cole described how some patients, once crammed with four others into small, outdated rooms, are now housed in newly refurbished cottages with private rooms. She explained how the hospital has added what it calls treatment malls, in which patients move out of the wards and into a central place each day for therapy, classes and activities.

Several statistics suggest the hospital is not the same place federal authorities saw in its 2006 inspection. It led to a scathing report on deplorable conditions that hampered patient recovery and threatened the safety of both patients and staff.

Since then, changes at the hospital have reduced the use of seclusion and restraints as ways to manage out-of-control behavior. Acts of aggression between patients also are down. So are patient attacks on staff.

These improvements come as deteriorating old buildings are being cleared to make room for a $280 million state-of-the-art new hospital scheduled to open in 2011. A second, smaller new facility is set to open in Junction City by 2013.

The Department of Justice inspection team, backed by the threat of a federal civil rights lawsuit against the state, will also find an improvement in staffing. That includes new hirings in the key leadership positions of chief psychiatrist, nursing officer and pharmacy director.

The state’s position is also bolstered by what the 2009 Legislature did at a time when it was slashing school funding and other state programs. Lawmakers approved spending $324 million, a 31 percent increase, for the state hospital in the next biennium — enough to hire more than 500 new staff members.

Despite such progress, the hospital still has far to go. Patients aren’t getting nearly the number of hours of therapy they should be getting. All those new staffing positions must be filled. The humane new facilities must be constructed.

Oregon needs more time to get this done. The federal Department of Justice proposed last year that the state agree to a two-year time frame for addressing needed reforms at the hospital. In a counter-proposal, attorneys for the state are asking for a four-year window.

The hospital can probably hire and train 500 more employees in the next two years, but it can’t complete its new facilities that swiftly. We hope federal examiners will see that the state has made a good-faith effort to address abysmal conditions at the Salem institution and has earned four more years to finish transforming it into one of the best psychiatric hospitals in the nation.

EXTRA – DOJ CRIPA Investigation of the Oregon State Hospital, January 2008 (PDF)
EXTRA – Everything about the Oregon State Hospital

OUR COMMENT – “Granted, anything could go wrong at any time” is quite a caveat. Why continue writing? We’ll wait to see the DOJ report and not spout off with premature and impartial reports. Tsk tsk.