CHARLESTON — Disability rights advocates in West Virginia say patients who are sent to state-run psychiatric hospitals after being found not guilty of a crime by reason of mental illness are being held for years after they are well.
The problem was discovered after Sharpe Hospital in Weston lost permission to accept Medicare and Medicaid over failures to document proper care in treatment plans.
Disability Rights of West Virginia began looking into Sharpe and discovered that it and other state-owned hospitals are holding forensic patients — people found not guity because of mental illness — for no medical reason.
“It’s a major civil rights violation for these people, and it’s a major money drain for the whole mental health system,” said Jeremiah Underhill, the group’s legal director.
According to state law, the chief medical officer of the psychiatric hospital is supposed to notify courts when forensic patients are either no longer mentally ill or no longer a danger to themselves or others. Within 30 days, the court is supposed to hold a hearing to determine whether the person can be released to a less restrictive setting.
The law provides no criteria for judges to follow when considering a less restrictive environment. Courts can keep a forensic patient in a psychiatric hospital for up to the maximum sentence for the crime.
Underhill believes judges are refusing to let people out because they want to appear “tough on crime.” But he said the patient’s crime should not even be a factor in the decision.
“It’s, `Are they well or not?”’ he said. “It doesn’t matter if they hurt somebody. It doesn’t matter if they were part of the robbery of a bank. What matters is, `Are they well?”’
Underhill said that the state spends millions each year holding well people in psychiatric hospitals, he estimates $4 million to $8 million a year. That money could be spent instead on community mental health services, reducing the need for inpatient psychiatric care in the first place, he said.
Jason Parmer, staff attorney for Disability Rights of West Virginia, said in an email that the United States Supreme Court has held that people cannot be involuntarily committed unless they are “presently mentally ill and dangerous.”
“It’s probably more than a coincidence that the forensic population in hospitals has skyrocketed since judges were given the power to discharge,” Parmer said, noting that from 1983 to 1994 physicians could discharge forensic patients without court approval.
Parmer said there were 16 forensic patients in fiscal year 1996. As of last week, according to Parmer, there were 319 forensic patients. That includes 141 at Sharpe, 16 at River Park, 38 at Highland Clarksburg, and the rest in less restrictive placements.