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D.C. hospital representatives pushed lawmakers to rewrite a rule that requires in-person court proceedings for involuntarily committed patients during a D.C. Council Committee on Health oversight hearing held virtually on June 5.

The proposed change would make virtual court proceedings the new standard for patients committed to treatment involuntarily under the Ervin Act, a set of procedures governing the detention of mentally ill patients believed to pose a health risk to themselves or others. The procedures, originally written by North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin in 1964 and updated in 2002, give involuntarily committed patients the right to regular court reviews of their detainment. These proceedings have been held online for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic in order to minimize the risk of viral spread in the courthouse.

“I’ve had numerous discussions with people about the Ervin Act over the last several years, and it sounds to me too like there might be a need … for ‘modernization’ of the Ervin Act,” said Ward 7 Councilmember Vincent Gray (D), chair of the Committee on Health, during the hearing.

Justin Palmer, the vice president of public policy and external affairs for the District of Columbia Hospital Association, brought up the topic during witness testimony in the committee’s review of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s recent budget proposal for the 2022 fiscal year. According to Palmer, the pre-pandemic practice of regular courthouse visits was taxing for patients and hospital staff.

“Prior to the pandemic, court proceedings were required to be in-person,” Palmer said during his testimony before the committee. “That required moving a patient that was involuntarily committed using a taxi or an Uber with hospital staff down to the courthouse, taking them outside the therapeutic environment for extended periods of time, and also creating the opportunity for elopement, which
while infrequent, has serious consequences if an individual is able to elope and they self-harm.”

Palmer, during his testimony, also tried to preempt lawmakers’ worries about how the shift
might impact patient experiences in court. “It’s not about taking rights away from the patient, it’s about preserving their rights — just meeting the modern day needs and making sure those who need treatment are able to get it,” he said.

Though members did not commit to any specific changes in policy during the hearing, the possible rule change could be implemented alongside other reallocations for the Department of Behavioral Health when the District’s budget is finalized and voted on.