AD Main Menu

Alaska needs to take back authority it ceded on mental health grievances

Dorrance Collins,Faith Myers
OPINION: If the state of Alaska continues to allow private mental health hospitals and psychiatric units to act with the power of the state, then the state has an obligation to set the patient grievance rules, due process and appeal process.
Aaron Jansen illustration

Legislators on both sides of the aisle have worked for years to improve the grievance rights for Alaska’s psychiatric patients. House Bill 214 was the latest example. Sponsored by Rep. Pete Higgins and co-sponsored by Reps. Geran Tarr, Lynn Gattis and Cathy Munoz, it is clear now that HB 214 will have to be re-introduced next year.

The Alaska government spent the best part of 60 years delegating its responsibility of protecting and caring for psychiatric patients to private hospitals. For a young Alaska government, the delegation of authority went on long enough to create a genetic memory and a way to do business.

Alaska’s major mistake was not in the sending of psychiatric patients to private in-state and out-of-state hospitals for treatment, the mistake was that the patients arrived with few if any rights guaranteed by the state of Alaska. The private hospitals enjoyed a basic ownership of the psychiatric patients.

In the 1960s psychiatric patients buried in unmarked graves and mistreated became a little less tolerated in America.

The Alaska Attorney General in 1981 stated that because psychiatric patients were held against their will in private psychiatric hospitals, patients should be given more rights to prevent the state from being sued. The Attorney General’s statement would have been better received if he talked primarily about protecting the psychiatric patient.

In 1984, psychiatric patients were given the right to be free from corporal punishment and the right to call an attorney.

In 1992, some acute-care psychiatric patients were given a right by state law to file a grievance. The law AS 47.30.847 and the state have delegated the responsibility of writing the psychiatric patient grievance procedure rules to private psychiatric institutions and units and their certification organizations.

The excessive delegation of the state’s authority and obligation to protect patients in the grievance process to a reasonable person would not seem to be legal or even beneficial. If the state continues to allow private hospitals and units to act with the power of the state, then the state has an obligation to set the patient grievance rules, due process and appeal process.

Alaska’s 58-year history of slow-walking psychiatric patient rights has brought us to the current patient grievance procedure. Private hospitals treating psychiatric patients and their certification organizations write the patient grievance rules, due process for appeals begins on the “second Tuesday of next week,” and an appeal process “maybe.” Each hospital’s psychiatric unit writes its own patient grievance rules.

Alaska will eventually set the grievance, due process and appeal process rules for all psychiatric patients. We would rather it be sooner rather than later.

Mental Health Advocates, Faith Myers/ Dorrance Collins

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.