- Associated Press - Friday, September 5, 2014

SEATTLE (AP) - The Washington Supreme Court on Friday unanimously agreed to give the state more time to find beds in psychiatric hospitals for mentally ill patients who have been involuntarily committed because they were a danger to themselves or others.

The justices banned the practice called “psychiatric boarding” in an Aug. 7 ruling, arguing that placing these patients in emergency rooms without treatment violates the Involuntary Treatment Act. Attorney General Robert Ferguson responded with a motion on Aug. 22 asking for a 120-day stay on that ban so the state could secure more beds. The court granted that request and said the mandate would go into effect on Dec. 26.

Jane Beyer, assistant secretary for the Behavioral Health and Service Integration Administration, released a statement thanking the court “for understanding the need for more time to secure effective treatment options for people who remain in community hospitals and are in need of mental health treatment.”

“We take our task of finding suitable treatment that meets their individual needs very seriously,” she said. “Thanks to the up to $30 million in spending authorized by Gov. Jay Inslee, we are identifying treatment options and will continue to move as quickly as we can to get patients the services they need.”

Beyer said her agency would work with Inslee, the Legislature, local communities and treatment programs to improve treatment options for mentally ill patients.

“We also need to hear from patients, their families and friends as they know firsthand the many challenges and barriers to providing support and treatment,” she said. “There are no easy fixes.”

Jennifer Sweigert, a Seattle lawyer who filed the original case that led to the ban, said she did not have a comment on the ruling “beyond what I said in the answer I filed to the (state’s) motion.” In that response, she said she opposed the state’s request because the agency had plenty of time to fix the problem. She said strapping people to beds in emergency rooms without treatment violates their civil rights.

“Essentially, the appellants seek permission to continue violating the law and the civil liberties of persons with mental illness for 90 or 120 more days,” she told the justices in her response to the state.

Mike De Felice, an attorney who oversees the King County public defense team at the civil commitment court in Seattle, said they were disappointed and surprised by the court’s ruling.

“The Supreme Court made clear that psychiatric boarding is unlawful,” he said in an email. “Those involuntarily detained deserve to be placed in a therapeutic setting designed to treat their mental illness. Effective and efficient treatment speeds recovery and allows our clients to get on with their lives as soon as possible. The decision to stay in no way prevents public defenders to argue to their local judges the same arguments made in the Supreme Court case in an effort to ensure their clients are not boarded.”

The high court’s order did not explain the justices’ reasons for granting the stay.

Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Hospital Association, praised the court’s decision. The association supported the ban on psychiatric boarding, “but meeting that need does not happen instantly,” she said.

When the state asked for more time, it also put forward a plan to put resources in place to help patients in need, Clunies-Ross said.

“We’re glad the court issued the stay because it allows hospitals to keep patients who are in danger of hurting themselves or others safe until they can get the treatment they need,” she said. “That’s the goal for these patients: to be safe and be treated.”

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