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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Washington Supreme Court Outlaws Mental Health 'Boarding'


The Washington Supreme Court unanimously ruled Thursday that the practice of "boarding" mental health patients in hospital emergency rooms is unlawful.

The justices upheld a lower court ruling in the case of 10 psychiatric patients. They were involuntarily detained under state law and then placed in non-psychiatric beds.

The state warned that means dangerous patients could end up on the street. But hospitals said it may not change their practices – at least not in the short-term.

Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services said it’s taking one immediate action in response to the Supreme Court ruling. It will no longer approve waivers to place severely mentally ill patients in regular hospital beds.

Emily Cooper, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington, called the ruling a victory for severely mentally ill patients.

“What the court ruled is when folks need mental health treatment they should get it,” she said. “And they should not be held in medical facilities where they’re not getting care or treatment and they continue to be a risk to themselves or others without treatment.”

But Michelle James with Providence St Peters in Olympia said this likely won’t end the hospital’s practice of “boarding” patients when there’s no other option.

“We really believe we can’t send them back out into the community, so we will continue our process,” she said.

That process is “boarding” the patients in a crisis unit and giving them access to mental health professionals. But it’s not the same as a psychiatric bed.

The number of acute psychiatric patients being “boarded” has spiked in Washington in recent years because of funding cuts. The state did recently fund some additional psychiatric beds, but not enough to keep up with demand.

One top legislative budget writer said this court decision could cost the state tens-of-millions-of-dollars.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."