Federal investigators plan to return to Salem next week to interview Oregon State Hospital patients as part of their expanded investigation of the psychiatric facility, hospital officials disclosed Thursday.
Several patients and a leader of the hospital's advisory board told the Statesman Journal that they welcome the latest federal Justice Department visit to OSH.
Some described it as another sign that the long-running federal investigation of Oregon's main mental hospital is picking up momentum.
"It seems like there's more activity. It seems like something is about to happen," said Maggie Bennington-Davis, a co-leader of the Oregon State Hospital Advisory Board. "My optimistic fantasy is they're really trying to make things better."
State officials did not reveal how many patients would be interviewed by federal lawyers or provide a specific date for the visit.
Next week's visit comes as federal and state lawyers are planning to get together for high-level talks to discuss the OSH investigation.
Federal investigators also have been soliciting information from other sources.
Bennington-Davis, the chief medical officer for Cascadia Behavioral Health Care, confirmed that she met with federal lawyers "a couple months ago" and fielded questions about the state hospital and Oregon's mental health system.
"Really, their questions were very systems-oriented," she said. "They said, 'Tell us about the mental health system in Oregon.' It was certainly not 'Give us the dirt,' or 'Give us your complaints.'"
In June 2006, the Civil Rights Division of the federal Justice Department began investigating patient care and hospital conditions at OSH.
In a scathing letter to the state in January 2008, the Justice Department criticized nearly every facet of patient treatment. The civil rights agency called for the state to make sweeping improvements or risk being hit with a federal lawsuit that could place the hospital under court control.
Settlement negotiations between the sides fizzled. Then, in a letter sent to the state Nov. 17, Jonathan Smith, the chief of the Special Litigation Section of the U.S. DOJ, said the hospital investigation was expanding to focus on Oregon's compliance with so-called Olmstead rights.
At issue is a 1999 Supreme Court ruling in a Georgia case — Olmstead v. L.C. — requiring states to provide treatment for people with disabilities in "the most integrated setting" that is appropriate to their needs.
In Oregon, mental health advocates long have complained about alleged violations of patients' Olmstead rights.
All too often, they say, patients get stuck in the mental institution for excessive stints of hope-killing confinement. Hospital critics blame the problem on multiple factors, including stringent release practices, a convoluted placement process, and a shortage of community beds and services.
Mental health activists also maintain that the state has poorly funded the community mental health system, starving an array of programs and services designed to help mentally ill people before they become desperately sick and wind up homeless, locked up in jails and prisons, or committed to the state hospital.
In the latest manifestation of such discontent, the OSH advisory board recently took a stand against the state's plan to build a new psychiatric hospital in Junction City. The board's position was predicated on the state's budget crisis and on beliefs that Oregon spends too much money on inpatient psychiatric care at the expense of community-based mental health services.
State legislators are scheduled to hear a report on the Junction City hospital next week, and whether to proceed with the hospital looms as a thorny issue.
The outcome of the OSH investigation also is uncertain. In the past two years, the U.S. Department of Justice reportedly has stepped up Olmstead enforcement action across the country.
In Georgia, for example, a federal investigation of the state's mental health system started with inpatient hospitals, then branched out to community-based services.
Last year, Georgia and the federal Justice Department reached a settlement that resolved a federal lawsuit filed against the state.
Settlement terms called for Georgia to expand its community mental health services during the next five years.
Whether the federal Justice Department intends to pursue a settlement strategy in Oregon akin to the approach used in Georgia remains to be seen.
Bennington-Davis said she is encouraged by the heightened federal emphasis on Olmstead rights and the push to "create community environments where people recover."
"That's my thing, so I'm sort of intrigued by that," she said.