Updated March 4, 2014, 8:50 a.m.
Families would be able to petition the courts to order their loved ones into mental health treatment, starting in 2017, according to a bill passed in Senate Ways and Means Monday night.
Doug and Nancy Reuter, who say that the life of their son Joel could have been saved by such a law, stayed for the committee’s vote, made after 8 p.m. Monday night.
Sen. Jim Hargrove (D-Hoquiam) proposed the amendment to delay the law until July 2017.
Hargrove said Washington’s involuntary commitment system already is set for a major change that is expected to increase the number of people ordered into mental health treatment.
HB 5480, which lawmakers approved in 2013, changes the criteria for involuntary commitment from “dangerous to self or others” to “gravely disabled.” That change in criteria starts this July.
Hargrove said his amendment “will give us some time for our whole system to catch up before this next provision comes into play.”
Senate Ways and Means passed the amended bill, with two Democratic Senators, David Frockt and Bob Hasegawa, both of Seattle, voting against it.
Original story posted March 3, 2014:
Nancy and Doug Reuter told the Senate Ways and Means committee Monday that the life of their son Joel might have been saved, if they had been allowed to petition the court to order their son to get involuntary treatment for his mental illness.
Joel Reuter was killed in a shootout with Seattle police last year. His parents testified in favor of HB 2725, which would allow families to petition the court to order their loved ones to get treatment for mental illness.
“There is a very, very real possibility that if this bill had been in effect last March 1st our son would be alive and back to work,” said his father, Doug Reuter. “But he’s not.”
Nancy Reuter testified to what might have been prevented if their son had been committed when friends and family recognized problems:
“An intervention by crisis teams after Joel flew to London and was deported. Days later, a suicide attempt and hospitalization in Canada. A high speed chase and crash on I-5 in April. A hearing and hospitalization in Everett. A Secret Service investigation. A hospitalization in Harborview that cost $65,000. On July 5, eight hour standoff with police. Medic, medical examiner, autopsy, and lastly a 3-day inquest estimated over a quarter of a million dollars.”
Doug and Nancy Reuter have been visiting Olympia from Texas since the start of session to convince lawmakers to take action on the proposal.
Currently, people with mental illnesses can be involuntarily committed if a designated mental health professional determines that the person is a danger to themselves or others. The bill would allow immediate family members to petition the court to reconsider if it is determined that the person doesn’t need involuntary treatment.
Nancy and Doug Reuter
Public defender Mike DeFelice testified against the bill, saying a new law is unnecessary. He said there is already a change in the law that allows designated mental health professionals to use the patient’s history as part of the assessment for involuntary commitment.
“It will look at the history of an individual much more, which will come from the family,” he said.
DeFelice says the state is underestimating the potential costs of the bill.
“The designated mental health professionals will be called into court much more often. It will keep them off the street and that’s not in anyone’s interest,” he said.
Chris Kaasa of the ACLU says the group had concerns about putting such decisions into untrained hands.
“Involuntary commitment should be informed by a thorough review by medical professionals with specialized expertise in the field of mental health. A judge without this expertise may feel pressure to order an initial detention to be on the safe side,” Kaasa said.
However, Kaasa encouraged senators to pass increased funding for mental health in the state to help patients before a crisis.
“That is what will help most families,” he said.
According to bill’s fiscal note, this change could cost the state up to $8 million a year in court, caseworker and hospitalization costs.
Sen. Randi Becker (R-Eatonville) sponsored the companion bill, and thanked the Reuters.
“We’re not ever going to avoid every situation but we can at least work towards it,” she said.
The House Bill passed off the floor unanimously last month.