Woman fights API forced-drug rules
MEDICATION: Former patient takes issue to the Alaska Supreme Court.
Faith Myers is battling Alaska Psychiatric Institute in court over whether the mental hospital has the right to force patients to take medication. The case was argued Wednesday before the Alaska Supreme Court. (Photo by Bill Roth / Anchorage Daily News)
By LISA DEMER
Anchorage Daily News
(Published: February 12, 2004)
Should people committed to the state mental hospital be forced to take psychiatric drugs, even if they believe the medicine hurts them?
The question was argued Wednesday before the Alaska Supreme Court in the case of an Anchorage resident, 52-year-old Faith Myers.
Her lawyer says absolutely not. Drugs commonly prescribed for mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia alter the way people think and have serious and damaging side effects, said Jim Gottstein, attorney for Myers. Patients have every right to refuse, or to make the state prove in court that the medicine is in their best interest, he said.
In a hearing over the issue last year, "Ms. Myers presented overwhelming evidence that these drugs are neither safe nor effective," Gottstein told the justices.
The state disagrees.
Psychiatrists at Alaska Psychiatric Institute keep patients' best interest in mind when deciding whether to use drugs, said Michael Hotchkin, an assistant attorney general representing API. Medications are often the best way to restore someone to society, he argued.
Medical professionals, not judges, should decide whether forcing a patient to take medication is the right course, he said. Judges can review that, but only to determine whether medical experts are using good professional judgment.
Justices peppered Hotchkin with questions to clarify the state's position and the court's role.
"Ultimately the issue involves the patient's liberty, doesn't it?" Chief Justice Alexander Bryner asked.
After the arguments, Hotchkin said API follows a series of steps laid out in state law to protect patient rights regarding commitment and medication.
The state already seeks court approval for people to be committed to API because their mental illness makes them a danger or they are too disabled to live on their own. It also must get a separate court ruling regarding medication, which rests on whether patients are competent to decide for themselves.
The question is whether the state constitution requires more, Hotchkin said.
In the courtroom, Myers listened as the lawyers argued. The proceeding drew a small audience of other advocates and people with mental illness.
Myers has struggled with mental issues most of her adult life. She is diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, has heard voices and has seen visions. But she believes some of the medications she's tried and been forced to take over the years worsened her condition.
One caused her to hear the voices, Myers said. Another gave her a sensation as if she were being raped, she said.
She refers to the drugs as "demon doors."
The case at issue began a year ago after Myers' grown children, worried for her safety after what they saw as bizarre behaviors, sought to have her committed to API. A hospital psychiatrist filed a petition to get court approval to force her to take medication, specifically an anti-psychotic drug called Zyprexa, one of the drugs that she says had caused problems before.
A Superior Court judge ruled in favor of API after a March hearing, but the decision was put on hold while Gottstein pursued an appeal to the Supreme Court.
On a personal level, Myers has resolved the issue. She was committed to API a total of three times last year and never agreed to take medicine. But many times, the psychiatric hospital staff still injected her with powerful drugs after what she considered to be made-up problems, she said.
The hospital also apparently obtained a new court order for medication for at least one of her stays at API, she said.
In November, just as she was getting out the last time, Myers was given an injection of a time released version of an anti-psychotic, Haldol Decanoate. She found that the medicine helped and since then has willingly taken it as an outpatient under the care of a private psychiatrist.
"I choose my own medicine," Myers said in an interview. "It turned out to be something I liked. It took away the voices and the restlessness."
The Supreme Court case remains important, Gottstein said. Patients need to be able to exercise their rights in court to challenge whether the medicine is in their best interest, he said.
Myers called Gottstein her champion. In most commitment cases, hearings last only minutes. He took the case on through the Law Project for Psychiatric Rights, a nonprofit organization. Myers also is raising other concerns about her care at API.
The hospital is in the midst of an inspection by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. Myers and Dorrance Collins, her life partner, both testified Wednesday afternoon about care and treatment of API patients. They've submitted a detailed letter that they've also circulated to legislators, mental health advocates and other officials.
In part, Myers objects to male nursing assistants routinely working in the women's unit, especially when they go into the women's bathroom and into bedrooms. Collins told the survey team that API should do more to help patients with a multitude of problems. When Myers was admitted to API her glasses were broken, he said, but no one would help her get new ones.
"The woman patient entered API homeless, very few resources, no glasses, medical problems, and left API four months later the same way," their letter said.
API's chief executive officer, Ron Adler, declined to discuss Myers' care on Wednesday, because he was concerned about violating her privacy.
In its last inspection survey three years ago, API scored 98.
Daily News reporter Lisa Demer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 257-4390.
Copyright © 2004 The Anchorage Daily News (www.adn.com)