Lawyers urge judge to require timely competency services

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SEATTLE (AP) — Lawyers for mentally ill criminal defendants want a federal judge to force Washington officials to provide timely mental health services, opposing a delay sought by the state.

The judge ruled last year that the state is violating the constitutional rights of its most vulnerable residents by forcing them to wait in jails for weeks or months before receiving competency evaluations or treatment to restore their ability to assist in their defense during trial.

U.S. District Judge Marsha Pechman gave the state until Jan. 2 to make changes. On Dec. 30, officials asked for more time.

State officials said they have worked diligently toward complying with the order, but demands made by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services hampered their efforts.

The agency threatened to cut funding for the state's largest psychiatric facility, Western State Hospital, four times last year over safety concerns. That facility must fix its safety violations by March 1 or lose millions in federal funds.

Because of that, the state asked the judge to move the deadline to provide competency services to May 27.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said in his State of the State address that the mental health crisis resulted from "devastating cuts to services" made during the recession. He said the state continues "to be hobbled by those cuts," but his budget plan adds funds for new facilities, additional staff and more psychiatrists.

"Our aim is simple: timely access to high-quality treatment in the appropriate setting," Inslee said. "We've all known someone struggling with mental illness. Let's get this done for them this year."

His comments came after attorneys for the mentally ill defendants filed a motion late Monday in U.S. District Court saying the state's request for a delay should be denied. They asked the judge to "act to prevent further floundering" by Washington officials.

The motion said the state Department of Social and Health Services has refused to adhere to recommendations from a court-appointed monitor that would have eased the delays. The wait times for competency evaluations and restoration services have increased since the judge's ruling, the lawyers said.

The average number of days people had to wait to have an evaluation at Eastern State Hospital was 41 days in March 2015 and now stands at 86 days, the motion said. At Western State Hospital, the average wait time for evaluations went down over the past year, but the wait times for restoration treatment increased from 29 days to 36, the motion said.

The state's failure to comply has had dire consequences, the attorneys said. The monitor noted in her latest report that two people have died in jail while waiting for competency services, according to the motion.

The lawyers also want the judge to reject the state's plan to change the location of some of the treatment sites from hospitals to jails.

The judge's order allowed the state to set up 30 temporary beds in correctional settings, but it now wants to increase that number to 55, the motion said. Jails are not "therapeutic environments" and are not suitable for restoration treatment, they said.

The state "should not be permitted to undermine the court's injunction by cloaking these substantive modifications as a time extension," the motion said.

During a Tuesday afternoon hearing of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, Carla Reyes, an assistant secretary for the Department of Social and Health Services, told lawmakers that the problems with the federal Medicare agency and the difficulty meeting the federal court's competency services deadline all stem from not having enough staff at Western State Hospital.

Staffing shortages forced the department to delay a plan to open two new wards that had beds for competency services, she said. One lawmaker responded to that by chastised the department for taking funds the Legislature allocated last year to deal with the competency cases and using it instead to respond to treats from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid.

Reyes said that wasn't the case. She said they are still using those funds to open new beds for competency services, but they just can't do it by the court's deadline and the beds won't be in the hospital, as planned.

They have 300 vacancies at Western State Hospital and are asking for 200 new positions in the latest budget request, she said. They hope that the new hires and the increase in pay that's being offered will help resolve some of these problems, she said.


Follow Martha Bellisle at . Her work can be found at .

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