Lawyer asks high court to deny 120-day delay in releasing mentally ill

SEATTLE — A lawyer representing mentally ill patients who were “warehoused” in emergency rooms because no treatment beds were available urged the state Supreme Court on Friday to reject the state’s request for a delay on banning the practice of psychiatric boarding.

Jennifer Sweigert argued that what the state really wants is “permission to continue violating the law and the civil liberties of persons with mental illness for 90 to 120 more days.”

Gov. Jay Inslee spokeswoman Jaime Smith responded to Sweigert’s claims by saying in an email: “Our interest is in trying to preserve services for patients and our request was strongly supported by many of the organizations who serve those patients.”

The court ruled on Aug. 7 that boarding people held under the Involuntary Treatment Act in emergency rooms because of overcrowding in treatment centers is not allowed. The act permits detention of people who are a threat to themselves or others “for the purpose of providing mental health treatment.” The extent of the problem is not known because no one collects data on how many patients are held this way.

After the high court set a deadline for the state to stop the practice, Attorney General Robert Ferguson filed a motion requesting a stay on the order so they could set up 145 more treatment beds. He argued that without a stay, people would be released without treatment and public safety could be threatened.

The court is set to consider both sides next Thursday.

Sweigert said she first challenged the practice in early 2013, and a judge ruled in May 2013 that the law did not allow the state to hold people in hospitals for non-medical reasons. That ruling was entered on June 10, 2013, she said. Fourteen months later, the high court affirmed the order and now the state wants more time, she said. That request should be denied, she said.

“If this court’s opinion were a complete surprise, a stay might be reasonable,” she said. “In light of the above history, it is not.”

Essentially, the state is saying, Sweigert said, “it is better for people to be deprived of their civil liberties and detained in hospital emergency rooms without treatment than to be released.

“But that judgment call,” she said, “is precisely the one the state is not permitted to make.”

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