Alaska Legislature approves psychiatric patient rights bill

Posted: Monday, April 21, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Four years after an Anchorage couple started pushing for a psychiatric patient rights bill, the Legislature finally approved the measure - in the last hours of the session.

The bill says adult psychiatric patients have the right to request the gender of the staff member providing intimate care in a hospital. That includes help with bathing, dressing and using the bathroom.

In the Senate, the bill passed unanimously while it cleared the House on April 13, the last day, by a 23-12 vote.

"I am just on top of the world," said Faith Myers, an advocate for patient rights, after Senate Bill 8 passed.

Patients sometimes need personal care because psychiatric drugs can knock them out for long stretches, or they may have injuries that prevent them from doing for themselves, she said.

"You might be too groggy to change your clothes. Some people are even in kind of a coma and have to have diapers changed. This would give them a chance to request their choice of gender," Myers said. In extreme cases, their guardian can explain, or maybe they've given wishes ahead of time.

"We just want to make sure patients are in on the conversation regarding their own personal care," said her partner, Dorrance Collins.

Myers and Collins have reputations as tireless fighters on Alaska mental health issues. Myers, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, learned from her own experiences as a patient at Alaska Psychiatric Institute and elsewhere.

A big case involving Myers went to the Alaska Supreme Court, which ruled in 2006 that before a psychiatric patient can be forced to take mind-altering drugs against his or her will, a judge must rule that the medication is in the patient's best interest and that a less-intrusive option doesn't exist.

Myers and Collins spent years working on evolving versions of the new legislation, and they still are working on other issues, including strengthening an existing law that gives psychiatric patients the right to file a grievance.

"They are very diligent in what they do," said Sen. Bettye Davis, D-Anchorage, one of the prime sponsors of Senate Bill 8 and chairwoman of the Senate Health, Education and Social Services Committee.

If they hadn't pushed so hard, narrowly focused Senate Bill 8 wouldn't have passed during the 90-day session, she said.

"Nobody was giving it much attention," Davis said.

Myers and Collins testified at every hearing and drummed up support from groups including the Disability Law Center, the Alaska Mental Health Board and the Law Project for Psychiatric Rights. They emphasized how people who have been abused sexually or physically may end up hospitalized for mental problems and said the victims should not be traumatized again in the hospital.

Davis said some legislators were concerned about whether psychiatric patients were capable of deciding who should provide personal care. Some thought the measure might force hospitals to hire extra staff.

"And that's not necessarily true, either," said Davis, who worked as a nurse and a social worker at API when she first came to Alaska. "If you were short-staffed and needed somebody to come down, you pulled somebody from another floor."

The bill applies not only to API but also to any Alaska hospital that provides mental health treatment to adults.

It says adult psychiatric patients have the right to ask for the gender of the staff providing help with bathing, dressing and the like, and if the hospital for some reason can't comply, that must be noted in the patient's record. In addition, routine safety checks of bedrooms, bathrooms and shower areas need to be done by a staff member who is the same gender as the patient, under the bill.

API was against the bill, because its staff members already follow such a policy, at least since the institute moved into its new building on Providence Drive in 2005, said Ron Adler, API's chief executive officer. Patients stayed in dorms at API's former home next door, and it was harder to ensure privacy. There's only been one complaint about the issue over many years, he said.

"Why are we legislating things that don't need to be fixed?" Adler said.

But policies can change in a flash, and other hospitals may not have one, Myers said. The bill ensures that this right can't be taken away, she said.

Now it's up to the governor, whose office said she hasn't yet been briefed on the bill.

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