Mental hospital reform planned

From wire and staff reports
Long Beach Press Telegram

LOS ANGELES Prosecutors have filed a consent decree in federal court that lays out a road map for sweeping reform, under a court-appointed monitor, at five state mental hospitals, including one in Norwalk, it was reported Wednesday.

The 90-page draft filed in federal court in Los Angeles Tuesday simultaneously with a lawsuit that it aims to resolve spells out a detailed prescription to prevent suicides and assaults, reduce the use of seclusion and restraints and offer more personalized care to the state's 5,000 or so mentally ill patients, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The strongly worded lawsuit criticizes the hospitals for "egregiously and flagrantly" depriving patients of their rights by offering services substantially inferior to "generally accepted professional standards of care" and failing to provide "adequate protections from harm."

But along with the stinging rebuke came an acknowledgment that the state has worked to improve its five beleaguered mental hospitals including Metropolitan State Hospital in Norwalk, which houses 686 patients.

Officials at the California Department of Mental Health officials said they are pleased with the resolution they negotiated with the U.S. Justice Department.

Kirsten Macintyre, assistant director of external affairs at the state Department of Mental Health, said, "We think it's a fair agreement. It spells out exactly what needs to be done and we're more than willing and able to implement the changes."

About 90 percent of those patients come from the correctional system, Macintyre said. She did not know the number of assaults or suicides that occurred at the hospital.

Balancing staff safety and patient rights issues is difficult at hospitals with a violent population.

"It's often a delicate balance," Macintyre said. "Take the whole issue of say, seclusion and restraint, which is one of the things that we looked at in this investigation. If someone is violent and lashing out, is it appropriate to use seclusion and restraint until they settle down? Is that a violation of their patient rights or is that something that needs to be done in order to protect the safety of the staff? There are a lot of questionable issues there and that's why it took so long to work through this."

The decree endeavors to bring the state's system in line with the latest national treatment models within the next three years, Macintyre said.

Other hospitals named in the decree are Napa State Hospital in Napa, Patton State Hospital in San Bernardino and Atascadero State Hospital on the Central Coast.

City News Service and staff writer Karen Robes contributed to this report.