Psychiatric Hospital Patients Sue State Over Treatment

The lawsuit was filed Aug. 15 and was publicized Friday by Disability Rights Montana

By AMY BETH HANSON, Associated Press

HELENA — The state health department and several employees are violating their own policies and state and federal laws in their treatment of four psychiatric patients, including two held in isolation for most of the time they have spent at the Montana State Hospital in Warm Springs, a group that filed a lawsuit on their behalf said Friday.

The lawsuit filed last month by Disability Rights Montana also alleges a patient at the Forensic Mental Health Facility in Galen was unnecessarily subjected to a forced take-down and was held naked, in restraints for several hours.

The patient’s treatment after he broke the fire sprinkler head off the ceiling mount in his room was captured on videotape, said Bernie Franks-Ongoy, executive director of Disability Rights Montana.

A fourth patient is challenging the system that the facilities use to remove or restore patient privileges. Sleeping without a light is one of the privileges patients can lose, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit filed Aug. 15 and publicized Friday by Disability Rights Montana also alleges staff members threaten forensic patients who complain that they could be sent to the Montana State Prison, and restrict patients’ liberty “for purposes of punishment, convenience, or as a substitute for meaningful mental health treatment programs.”

The Galen facility “has created a penal environment for prisoners, not a treatment environment for patients,” Disability Rights Montana said in the lawsuit.

District Judge Kathy Seeley is scheduled to hear arguments Monday on a request that the Department of Public Health and Human Services remove the patients’ most restrictive conditions while the lawsuit is pending.

Jon Ebelt, the department’s spokesman, declined comment on the specific claims in the lawsuit but stressed that “the health, safety and privacy of patients at Montana State Hospital is our primary concern at all times.”

He added that the department “has taken steps and made significant financial investments to increase the capacity of the facility and to keep patients and staff safe — often in the face of opposition from Disability Rights Montana.”

The lawsuit claimed that state hospital staff members do not have the expertise they need to treat the two patients who have been held in isolation cells 23 hours per day for years after one was admitted in 2010 and the other in 2012.

“In fact, all they’re doing is warehousing these two people,” Franks-Ongoy said.

The inmate challenging the privileges system was found not guilty on two counts of homicide due to mental illness, but was functioning well at the state hospital, the lawsuit said.

But he lost privileges for minor infractions and has been moved to the Forensic Mental Health Facility for those convicted of crimes and suffering from mental illness, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit names several nurses, two psychiatrists and Richard Opper, director of the state health department, which operates the two facilities.

It claims patients are not held in a “humane psychological and physical environment” and that their families are not given reasonable access.

Patients are also controlled with excessive medication and placed in unnecessary restraints or seclusion, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit asks for a jury trial, a ruling that patients’ constitutional rights been violated, unspecified monetary damages and payment of lawyers’ fees.