Patient lawsuit demands treatment, not punishment

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Patients sue to restore rights

SEATTLE – Three State Hospital patients are suing Washington State to restore rights recently taken away from them.

Several new state laws and policies restrict access to therapy and supersede the opinions of patients’ treating clinicians. One such law banned patients found not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI) from walking on hospital grounds, even if doctors prescribed this for treatment and recovery. The patients argue these laws and policies deprive them of their constitutional right to adequate mental health treatment.

“The cost of taking away the very liberties that this country and the United States Constitution represent, is you are taking away something that is very precious, priceless, and should absolutely be restored,” said plaintiff Ketema Ross.

Ross is a former Yale law student and a current patient at Eastern State Hospital.

“Under the Constitution, patients cannot be treated like prisoners,” said Andrew Biviano of the Scott Law Group in Spokane, lead attorney in this lawsuit.

“Politics should not have a greater impact on patients’ care than the views of treating doctors. Politicians should not be practicing medicine without a license,” he said. “The root of the problem is the amount of fear, prejudice, and misunderstanding that still surrounds mental illness. As a result, we often punish people with mental illness when we should be treating them. I took this case to give people with mental illness the respect and dignity they deserve, and to restore the gradual reintegration that has been shown to best protect public safety.”

For decades, state hospital patients have received treatment that gradually reintegrated them into the community as they recovered. According to state hospital data, the previous NGRI reintegration plan generated a recidivism rate of less than 1%, far below the recidivism rate of people leaving jails and prisons.

This data supports the patients’ position that they recover after they receive treatment and are not likely to commit crimes once released. The patients also question whether that rate will remain low when clinicians no longer have the flexibility to give patients slow but measured steps to safely demonstrate their recovery.

As both a former mental health case manager and federal prosecutor, Biviano knows firsthand that appropriate mental health care is critical to both patient recovery and public safety. The patients are also represented by attorneys from Disability Rights Washington (DRW), the federally mandated protection and advocacy agency designated by the governor to protect the rights of people with disabilities across the state. DRW is co-counseling with the Scott Law Group to provide legal representation to the named plaintiffs in this lawsuit.  In addition, DRW has joined as an organizational plaintiff in the case in order to ensure the court considers the needs of all patients facing these punitive conditions.

Interviews with Ketema Ross, other plaintiffs, and involved advocates and legislators can be seen in the 2013 video produced by DRW, The Megaphone Effect – Reclaiming Recovery.

Further coverage of this story can be found at the Inlander Blog and Spokane-based newspaper, Inlander.

Disability Rights Washington, DRW, is the publisher of DisAbility Rights Galaxy.