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Senate Opens Talks on Mental Hospital

20 Jan 2005

By Michelle Roberts

A Senate panel on Wednesday opened hearings into problems at the Oregon State Hospital, including discussion of whether the 121-year-old psychiatric facility should be torn down and replaced with a new hospital.

According to testimony before the Senate Committee on Health Policy, state mental health officials are trying to complete a $120,000 study by May that will look at what it would cost to build a new facility, how big it should be and where it should be.

"This is a start to the dialogue," said Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, the committee's chairwoman. "Hopefully, it will not be just talk."

The study, which will be conducted by a yet-to-be-named architectural and engineering firm, also will examine what to do with the hospital's 144-acre campus, specifically how to demolish buildings that contain asbestos and lead paint.

Concern about conditions at the hospital -- one of the oldest, most dilapidated state mental institutions in the United States -- have grown in recent months amid reports of patient abuse, short staffing and crumbling facilities. More than 740 patients reside at the facility.

In October, Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, wrote a letter to fellow senators saying that conditions at the hospital are so appalling the institution is vulnerable to a federal lawsuit and possible takeover by the courts.

Courtney's letter followed a meeting with Dr. Marvin Fickle, hospital superintendent. Courtney called for the meeting 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 newspaper also reported that the hospital is 30 percent to 40 percent understaffed, routinely overcrowded and that patients had been beaten, kicked, humiliated and tormented by staff.

Bob Nikkel, head of the Department of Human Services' mental health and addictions division, testified Wednesday that the firm to conduct the study will be selected in early February.

One of its priorities will be to look at whether the state should build a new psychiatric hospital, a series of intensive community facilities or a combination. The group also will decide the feasibility of the Department of Human Services teaming with the Department of Corrections to build a facility that would serve mentally ill Oregonians who commit serious crimes.

The first phase of the study is due May 16 so lawmakers will have time to debate financing the second phase of the plan before the session adjourns.

"The magnitude of the task is daunting," Courtney said Wednesday. "But we want it done (by May) because we're assuming we'll still be here and it will give us an opportunity to do something."

Gov. Ted Kulongoski has included $350,000 in his recommended budget for Phase 2 of what's being called the state hospital master plan, but the Legislature must approve the request.

Built in 1883, the hospital -- only a mile from the Capitol -- is a hulking reminder of the state's failure to create a modern approach to treating people with mental illnesses.

Several studies in recent years have recommended that Oregon scale back the hospital and invest in a network of community treatment centers that would be cheaper and more effective for patients.

But mental health leaders and advocates have feared that if they pushed that approach, the hospital would close and the Legislature wouldn't adequately fund community mental health services. State officials also have been reluctant to risk a fight with the unions that represent the hospital's 1,250 employees.

Nikkel said that the hospital's employee unions would have a voice in the master plan, but added that change would come. "What we really need now is to focus and start to make some decisions," he said.

© 2005 Oregonian Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Used with permission of The Oregonian.

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