ANNAPOLIS – Ten days after she was hospitalized with schizophrenia at Cumberland’s Finan Center in 1993, Arlena Beeman was medicated against her will.
The action had the approval of a medical panel, and Beeman, 63, had the right to appeal within 48 hours of the decision. But it wasn’t until she actually got the authorized injection that she protested. By then, she was told, it was too late.
But was she lucid enough to understand that in missing the deadline, she had waived her rights?
Lawyers from the Maryland Disability Law Center don’t think so, and on Thursday went before the Court of Special Appeals to argue that such circumstances call for protections similar to those in the Americans with Disabilities Act.
The situation “could be compared to telling a deaf person about their rights without the aid of a sign language interpreter. They wouldn’t understand it,” Ada E. Cherry-Mahoi told the three assembled judges.
If a person’s mental illness prevents her from understanding the appeal procedure, she should automatically be granted a hearing to make sure she is not denied due process, Cherry-Mahoi said.
So far this year, 126 clinical review panels have met in Maryland, with 120 approving forced medication. In 68 cases, patients did not appeal. However, the Beeman brief said there was no way to know whether the patients voluntarily waived their rights or didn’t understand enough to act on them.
But an attorney representing the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said that requiring additional hearings would be similar to opening “Pandora’s box.”
“Is there going to be an appeal rights process to appeal a mental competency ruling? Where does it end?” David R. Morgan asked during Thursday’s hearing.
Morgan also questioned the potential expense to inpatient facilities, and later said that the issue would be more properly decided by the Legislature.
In an interview, he said, “The costs involved would be substantial….I can’t document a figure. You’re paying for a physician…and I think [requiring a competency hearing] could generate a whole new round of appeals.”
Adding another appeals process could also result in treatment delays, he said.
“If you file an appeal, it suspends treatment. It could take months and months….We’re trying to do the best we can by our patients by treating them quickly and returning them to the community.”
Beeman, who was hospitalized involuntarily at the Finan Center, had a history of refusing medication and involving the legal system in her medical affairs, according to briefs in the case.
But Cherry-Mahoi said there were “wide public interests at stake.”
“A person who is under a disability is entitled to the same protection that anyone else enjoys,” she said. “These individuals are entitled to due process…regardless of whether the medication proves to be beneficial in the long run.”
The Court of Special Appeals customarily rules on such issues within several months, Cherry-Mahoi said. She added: “I’m hopeful, but we’ll be waiting with bated breath.” -30-