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A sign of hope for Oregon

Oregonians can be excused for being unsure about how to celebrate the opening of the first wing of a state-of-the-art mental health facility rising on the grounds of the old hospital in Salem.

The new state hospital in Salem will have 22 courtyards, none of them surrounded by razor or barbed wire. After all, it's been 127 years since Oregon opened a new state hospital.

Hospital staffers opened the doors to the new 100-bed wing, known as Harbors, for public tours on Nov. 18 after Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Sen. Peter Courtney, D-Salem, hospital leaders and a patient spoke at an hourlong ceremony. All in all, it was an understated event, one befitting a state still struggling with deep-seated issues not just at its state hospital, but throughout its system of mental health care.

It will be January before the first patients move into the new wing, and many are frustrated about the delay, which hospital Superintendent Greg Roberts decided was required for the hiring and training of more staff. The hospital continues to battle persistent staff and treatment issues, including patient attacks and the too-frequent use of restraint and seclusion.

Moreover, the opening comes with a political backdrop as lawmakers and leaders in the mental health and justice systems debate whether the state should follow through with plans for a second new hospital in Junction City. Many advocates for persons with mental illnesses are now asserting that the money for a second hospital would be better spent on small community facilities throughout the state.

The new hospital under construction in Salem will provide the same number of beds, about 620, as the decrepit hospital complex it is replacing. The state also is scheduled to close a total of 150 mental health beds it now has in Portland and Pendleton. There are discussions under way about possible changes in the statutes governing the Psychiatric Security Review Board, which could reduce the number of persons found "guilty but insane" of crimes and sent to the state hospital.

But if Oregon abandons the Junction City project after it completes the new hospital in Salem next year, the shiny new facility that partially opened Nov. 18 very likely would quickly become as overcrowded as the run-down hospital it is replacing.

There's time later — in the next Legislature and beyond — to determine the future of the Junction City facility and consider changes in the PSRB. Oregonians ought to pause now to recognize and take some satisfaction in what is a historic investment in mental health care.

Oregon is selling more than $450 million in bonds to pay for the new hospitals and has budgeted tens of millions of dollars more to expand hospital staff. It has made record investments in community mental health care over the past decade.

No one in Oregon has ever said that mental health care begins and ends with one or two new state hospitals. There's still tremendous work to do throughout the system, and questions of where and how to spend the available resources are crucial.

But this is a rare moment in Oregon history when compassionate, effective mental health care is front and center among the state's priorities.

Remember, it was only six years ago that Oregon still held the cremains of more than 5,000 patients stacked like paint cans in a hospital outbuilding and blithely warehoused terribly ill people in falling-down buildings with no air conditioning or insulation and buckets catching rainwater.

Yes, there still is a long way to go.

But at least Oregon is finally moving.