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Judge denies DHHR proposals for fixing W.Va. psychiatric hospitals

By Lydia Nuzum, Staff writer

Three proposals submitted by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to remedy staffing and safety problems at the state’s two psychiatric hospitals were rejected Wednesday by Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom.

The William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital, in Weston, and the Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital, in Huntington, have been the focus of an ongoing court case centered on the appropriate treatment of mental-health patients remanded to state care. Bloom had ordered DHHR to come up with the proposals during a previous hearing April 29.

“You have failed to submit a viable plan to remedy these situations,” Bloom said. “I don’t find that the department has made a reasonable effort to address this issue.”

Victoria Jones, commissioner for the DHHR’s Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, testified that the agency’s three major plans to address the issues at the hospitals include privatizing the facilities, making all employees contract workers or what she referred to as a “hybrid plan” — making all Sharpe and Bateman employees classified as exempt under Division of Personnel code.

Classified-exempt employees would have more flexibility in scheduling and greater payment opportunities and would retain their health benefits and pension, Jones said. However, they but would not have access to collective-bargaining rights and would become at-will employees, meaning the DHHR would have greater authority in firing employees than it does for its public employees. 

Jones did not clarify if any of the options the DHHR presented would be cost-effective. However, she did say all would require legislative intervention because they likely would require a change in funding appropriated by the Legislature. 

“When you look at what the private sector has to offer, and what was testified to — that they have no problem recruiting — and I believe the same would be for us,” Jones said. 

Private hospitals also offer a 0.9-status employee option to their staffs, according to Jennifer Wagner, managing attorney for Mountain State Justice, the nonprofit firm representing the interests of the patients and employees of both hospitals. Workers in the 0.9 option typically work less than five days a week. The option allows for more paid time off for employees, but the DHHR’s hybrid options does not allow for that type of employee. 

In 1982, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled in E.H. v. Matin (the “Hartley case”) that it is against state mental-health law to “warehouse” a patient in a mental-health facility.

Both hospitals were court monitored for 20 years, until Bloom lifted that monitoring in 2001 and ordered an ombudsman to keep track of the facilities. The case was reopened in 2009, after it was determined that conditions had deteriorated at each hospital. 

Both hospitals have experienced a large number of employee vacancies, which attorneys for Mountain State Justice argue have caused their level of patient care and safety to deteriorate. Sharpe Hospital, a 150-bed facility that would normally employ 456 staff, had 48 vacancies as of March 30.

Bateman Hospital, which should have a staff of 393, had 41 vacancies as of March 30, and more employees have left Sharpe since the April hearing, according to Jamie Beaton, the chief steward of UE Local 170 in Weston and a health services assistant at Sharpe.

“I’ve been there since 2006,” Beaton said. “The only raises we’ve received have been from the Legislature — two raises of 2 percent or $600. As a result of the Hartley hearing on Jan. 1, 2013, we received pay increases, as well. The safety of patients and staff, violence [from patients] and mandatory overtime are major concerns. Employees have been known to sleep in their cars in the parking lot because they have to be prepared for another double shift.” 

The plaintiffs proposed a “fourth plan” that would require the DHHR to offer competitive salaries to its employees and maintain salary increases through the Division of Personnel. Jones said the plan was a “Band-Aid” that was not viable in the long term but, on cross examination, admitted that the agency had not requested pay increases for its public employees through the Division of Personnel since 2009, when the case was reopened.

“We have proposed that they develop a step-wage system, where employees work their way up within their classification and get the appropriate approval,” said John Thompson, the international representative for UE 170, which represents employees at all of the DHHR’s hospitals. “Obviously, we’re very disappointed with their proposals to address staffing situations at these hospitals. In fact, they seem unwilling to address it.” 

According to Beaton, the DHHR has no budget for mandatory overtime and the money allotted to the DHHR for its vacant employees goes toward paying for mandatory overtime, something he said he believes further harms the hiring process. 

“The average health service worker makes $20,000 a year,” he said. “What happens is you have a lot of single parents who work there, working 12- and 16-hour shifts, day after day, and they make a little too much for state assistance, so they’re paying $400 a month for a babysitter, and the end result is it’s cheaper for them to get in the system, receive SNAP benefits and not work, because they can’t do both.” 

Bloom ordered the DHHR and Mountain State Justice to develop alternate proposals within 10 days to present to the court. 

Reach Lydia Nuzum at lydia.nuzum@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5189.


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