Oregon State Hospital in Salem
Oregon State Hospital in Salem. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Originally published by Oregon Capital Chronicle. For more coverage related to Oregon state government, politics and policy, visit the Oregon Capital Chronicle website.

Oregon State Hospital’s annex in Junction City has added a new 24-bed unit and plans to open a second 24-bed unit early next year to take pressure off of the Salem campus, which has long been under judicial orders to admit more patients.

The annex, which opened six years ago as a secure facility for people deemed guilty except for insanity or for civilly committed patients, has never been fully funded. Until recently, it operated below capacity with about 350 staff members and room for 96 patients. 

Lawmakers increased hospital funding in the 2021-2023 budget, addinge $31 million for  two units. That is enough for just over 100 new employees. So far, about 70 people have been hired, according to Robb Cowie, communications director for the Oregon Health Authority.

Already, 24 patients judged to be guilty except for insanity have been transferred from the main hospital, which has been under a federal court order for nearly two decades to admit so-called aid-and-assist patients after seven days in jail. These people need treatment to participate in the criminal process. 

The court order was relaxed by a U.S. District Court judge in Portland during the pandemic. The hospital also faced a contempt of court ruling in September from a Multnomah County Circuit Court judge for failing to admit 18 people found guilty except for insanity, including some who had been languishing months in jail, according to news reports.

The focus of the Salem hospital, however, remains on admitting more aid-and-assist patients and the Junction City expansion provides that opportunity. 

The hospital’s limit on patients stems from perennial staffing problems. The situation has been so bad that the Oregon National Guard was ordered into the hospital twice since the pandemic hit to help. 

Dolly Matteucci, superintendent of the Oregon State Hospital, told the House Interim Committee on Behavioral Health on Wednesday that retention of employees remains a major problem. Oregon State Hospital has 186 vacancies among core employees, mainly nursing, security and treatment services, she said.

Retirements nearly doubled this year to nearly five people a month, she said. Others leave for family reasons, they move or find better jobs. Just over 10% leave because they’re dissatisfied with management or their job, she said.