Lawsuit settlement: more rights for psychiatric patients

SEATTLE — Lawyers for a group of mentally ill patients settled a federal lawsuit Thursday with the agency that runs Washington state's two psychiatric hospitals after improvements were implemented to allow the patients to receive more treatment and enjoy more freedom.

Patients who were admitted to the hospitals after being found not guilty by reason of insanity had lost many of their freedoms after a patient with a violent history walked away from one of the facilities in 2009 and the state legislature passed laws that cracked down on these patients.

Spokane lawyer Andrew Biviano and Disability Rights Washington sued the state in 2014, arguing the restrictions violated the patients' constitutional rights.

The two sides entered into negotiations and reached a settlement in 2016, Biviano said. The state began implementing changes and on Thursday, a federal judge approved the settlement and dismissed the case.

"This is a great success story that is a win for patients, hospital staff, and the people of Washington," Biviano said. "Patients have a better quality of life, increased dignity, and are able to return to their families more quickly. The hospitals have more tools to fulfill their mission of providing excellent patient care, and taxpayers benefit from the better expenditure of resources on people in acute need of intensive mental health services, rather than on hospitalizing people who do not need it."

Sean Murphy, Assistant Secretary for the Department of Social and Health Services, Behavioral Health Administration, said the changes mean the patients will have a better chance at safely acclimating back into the community.

"We are very pleased with the court's recognition of our efforts here," Murphy said in a statement. "People can and do recover from mental illness. Learning how to once again live outside of the hospital walls is an important part of treatment."

Under the settlement, NGRI patients will have more access to hospital grounds and will have the ability to go on staff-escorted trips if they've been cleared by a clinician.

The hospitals have reduced the use of strip searches and physical restraints, Biviano said. The state agency also created a Patient Ombudsman position to investigate cases where the patient believes their rights were violated.