Politics & Government

New law allows hospitals to hold mental patients if no room elsewhere

A new state law allows patients with mental illness to be detained in local hospitals when there’s no room at facilities designed for them.

The state Supreme Court struck down overcrowding-driven detentions last year. But that was based on a law that changed as part of wide-ranging legislation approved overwhelmingly by the Legislature and signed Thursday by Gov. Jay Inslee.

The change might not have much immediate practical effect. It gives legal backing to a practice that’s already happening — more than 200 times in March alone — and to safeguards state officials say are being used to ensure patients get appropriate medical care.

“What’s most important is that people are getting treatment,” Rep. Laurie Jinkins, D-Tacoma, said. “We’re putting millions and millions of dollars into adding beds to our mental health system, but knowing that we’re in a transitional time like this, you’ve got to create the path for that capacity to come up to speed.”

Otherwise, people who need treatment would be turned away, lawmakers said.

Hospitals backed the bill, which would allow detentions only at hospitals that consent and that have the ability to treat patients. The bill also calls for more reporting about if and how patients are detained.

But some critics say hospital detention is a continuation of so-called psychiatric boarding, which the court struck down. Lawmakers and Inslee have directed money to more treatment facilities to prevent boarding.

Defense attorneys want lawmakers to focus on providing enough money in the latest budgets they are negotiating, they said in a letter asking Inslee to veto the sections of Senate Bill 5649 that create the new authority.

“These sections are merely an attempt to negate the decision (by the court) ... and threaten the rights of mentally ill patients to proper evaluation and treatment,” two associations of defense attorneys wrote in the letter.

Inslee retained the bill in full.

There’s “always some tension between safety and individual liberties,” Inslee said after signing it. “We erred on the side of safety in this particular circumstance.”

Officials in his administration and lawmakers of both parties said the added safeguards would keep patients from suffering long waits without treatment.

“None of us are interested in psychiatric boarding, nor do we want to institutionalize that in law,” Sen. Steve O’Ban, R-Tacoma, said.

O’Ban said the new authority would be needed mainly in rural areas where there are no evaluation and treatment centers.

“It’s the failsafe here,” Sen. Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, said, “because absent the great number of beds that we are in the process of putting online to be able to serve these folks, we don’t want the only option to be return to the streets.”

JOEL’S LAW

Under another mental-health bill Inslee signed Thursday, family members will be able to ask a judge to step in if a mental health professional will not involuntarily commit a relative they believe could be suicidal or a danger to others.

Inslee signed “Joel’s Law” joined by Doug and Nancy Reuter, the parents of the man for whom the measure was named. Joel Reuter was suicidal when Seattle police shot and killed him during a standoff in July 2013.

“You have parents who have just been heartbroken to not have a tool to really adequately address the danger to their children,” Inslee said after the signing. “This was a reasonable step to provide that measure of protection going forward.”

Inslee signed the bill with a pen that used to be Joel Reuter’s that had been handcrafted by his father. Nearby on the table was a hand-blown glass vase that Doug had also made for his son.

“This is an unbelievable day,” Doug Reuter said after the signing, fighting back tears.

The couple, who often traveled from their Dallas home to Washington in support of the bill, testified in support of the measure earlier this year, telling lawmakers they repeatedly tried to get the state to force their son into treatment but were turned away.

Under Senate Bill 5269, a superior court judge can order detention if, after reviewing the family member’s petition and a statement and other information from the mental health professional, the judge finds it is warranted.

Doug Reuter said that if the law had been in place in 2013, after two incidents months before the fatal shooting, including a suicide attempt, “we could have possibly gotten Joel the help he needed.”

Inslee also signed a measure on suicide prevention and another that allows involuntary outpatient treatment following a court order. Doug Reuter said that Joel’s Law, combined with the other measures, will “save dozens and dozens if not hundreds of lives in the state of Washington.”

“To make this great of a leap in the area of mental health treatment is really amazing,” he said.

-The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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