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Senator Fears Loss of Hospital

23 Oct 2004

By Michelle Roberts

Peter Courtney urges legislators to act on problems at the Oregon State Hospital before it faces a federal lawsuit or a court seizure.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney said Friday that conditions at the Oregon State Hospital in Salem are so appalling the institution is vulnerable to a federal lawsuit and possible takeover by the courts.

In a two-page letter to fellow state senators, Courtney railed against the overcrowding, understaffing and decrepit conditions at the 121-year-old hospital.

"All of these factors, compounded by a history of past patient abuses, make a federal lawsuit an imminent probability," Courtney wrote.

"Not only will that cost the state a tremendous amount of money, but may result in a court taking over our public mental health system. The matter will be taken out of our hands if we do not act quickly."

Courtney's letter came in response to a recent meeting with Dr. Marvin Fickle, hospital superintendent since last summer. Courtney called for the meeting last month in response to a two-day series in The Oregonian that detailed the sexual abuse of as many as a dozen patients in the hospital's adolescent unit by psychiatric aides from 1989 to 1994.

The investigation disclosed that hospital officials and their supervisors -- most still employed in state government -- did little to stop the abuses and often failed to report suspected sexual abuse immediately to police and child welfare workers as required by state law. The articles also said the hospital had taken only limited steps to prevent abuse in the years since.

Courtney characterized his meeting with Fickle as "deeply troubling."

Courtney said Fickle denied that children were continuing to be abused in the hospital but did acknowledge that patient conditions were dreadful.

The hospital is one of the oldest and most decrepit state mental health facilities in the United States. More than 40 percent of its building space is unusable.

"Water leaks from the roof down through three floors, walls are crumbling and asbestos insulation presents a toxic hazard," Courtney wrote.

The hospital houses 760 patients, but has only 1,150 staff members, one of the lowest patient-to-staff ratios in the country. By contrast, he pointed out, a comparable hospital in Washington state employs 1,900 staff for 790 patients.

A public records request by The Oregonian shows there have been more than 50 substantiated cases of physical, vocal and sexual abuse against adult patients by staff in the past 3-1/2 years.

"I reached the conclusion after talking to (Fickle) that the hospital has reached the point of no return," Courtney said in an interview Friday.

"If the courts get involved in this and we come under judicial watch, we're going to have to tear down the facility and start anew, or tear down portions and rebuild.

"We've been getting away with this for decades."

Courtney said the state's mental health system -- and the future of the state hospital -- would be one of the key issues for him in the coming legislative session.

"Mental health always gets put last -- always, always, always," he said. "I'm well aware of what the governor's budget is going to be -- but that's too bad. That can't be used as an excuse anymore."

Reached late Friday, Gary Weeks, director of the Department of Human Services, which oversees the hospital, said he is unsure whether the state is in danger of losing control of the hospital.

"I'm not prepared to say we've exposed ourselves to a lawsuit," Weeks said. "But (Courtney) may have a lot more information than I have on this."

Also on Friday, Gov. Ted Kulongoski announced that he has received a review from Weeks of the Oregon State Hospital's policies on patient abuse. Kulongoski requested the review after The Oregonian's stories.

A panel of the state's top mental health officials will examine the 200-page report to determine whether changes in abuse reporting and investigations at the hospital are necessary.

"We must ensure," he said, "that the state is providing the best possible care to Oregonians with mental illness being served at the state hospital."

© 2004 Oregonian Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Used with permission of The Oregonian.

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