Will W.Va. privatize its 2 psychiatric hospitals?

A legislator, a union official and others say they’re worried that, at a court hearing this week, the state Department of Health and Human Resources could move to privatize West Virginia’s two government-run psychiatric hospitals, Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital, in Huntington, and William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital, in Weston.

House Majority Whip Peggy Donaldson Smith, D-Lewis, said she is particularly worried that the hospitals could be privatized or might hire more short-term, temporary contract workers.

“A private owner could move Sharpe Hospital away from us,” said Lewis, who represents the Weston area. “It would be a devastating thing for our community. It would be devastating for the people who work here.”

Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom has ordered the two hospitals to present plans to improve their work environments at a hearing in his Charleston courtroom on Wednesday. Bloom’s order came as part of an ongoing lawsuit over care of mental-health patients at the hospitals.

“The hospitals are having difficulty in recruiting and keeping employees — particularly in personal care,” said Lydia C. Milnes, a lawyer for Mountain State Justice, which represents patients in the two hospitals. “We would like to see [the DHHR] come up with a plan working within the current system to offer competitive wages and good working conditions to retain employees.”

Milnes has met with DHHR officials recently.

“They have discussed tentative proposals. In our meetings, they mentioned privatization and the increased use of contract employees. We are opposed to any form of privatization, including the use of contract employees,” Milnes said.

Allison C. Adler, the DHHR’s director of communications, said Friday, “[The] DHHR is continuing to consult with the petitioners and the Court Monitor in developing a plan which will be submitted during the hearing scheduled on June 11, 2014.”

Jamie Beaton, a health service assistant, is chief steward at Sharpe for the West Virginia Public Employees Union, Local 170 of the United Electrical Workers. Beaton said employees have heard that the DHHR “may only privatize the direct-care staff or they may take away everybody. [Employees] would lose their benefits and their protections as state workers.”

Beaton said the state’s three proposed options are all “horrible.”

In a legal order released June 2, Bloom expressed concern about “issues of understaffing and patient care.”

Both hospitals, for example, failed to give pay increases to many of their health-care workers, as was required by a court order from Bloom back in 2009.

The judge’s new order notes, “Beaton [previously] testified that hospital employees are required to work large amounts of overtime, which can be either voluntary or mandatory. … Direct care employees are sometimes required to work 12 to 16 hour shifts, two to three days in a row.”

During the past year, Beaton said, Sharpe Hospital employees filed 130 complaints with the West Virginia Division of Labor over alleged unsafe working conditions, including a large number of employee injuries from attacks by patients. The hospital employs about 150 workers.

The division, Beaton said, took no action on any of those complaints.

Many patients at Sharpe, Beaton said, “committed crimes. The legal system sends them to state psychiatric facilities because they can’t handle them in state prisons.”

Smith said, “I have made lots of suggestions to [the] DHHR about recruitment and overtime, about holding job fairs and about other issues. They haven’t followed through on any of them.

“Their employees work for slave wages. They work all that overtime. They continue to be exhausted. Sometimes, when patients attack them physically, they are too tired to deal with that. They get no support from [the] DHHR.”

Bloom’s order details problems he plans to discuss Wednesday, including:

n The high number of staff vacancies.

n Requiring employees to work mandatory overtime.

n Hiring temporary and contract workers to fill staff vacancies.

n The negative effects staffing problems have on the quality of patient care.

n The failure of both hospitals “to work with the [West Virginia] Division of Personnel to offer competitive wages as a means to recruit and retain full-time employees.”

n A “continued failure to implement” the 2009 order to increase pay.

Bloom’s order states that both hospitals have had “a significant number of ongoing staffing vacancies in direct care positions,” including registered nurses, licensed practical nurses, health service workers, health service assistants and health service trainees.

During February and March, Sharpe had an average of 48 vacant positions, while Bateman had an average of 44.

“At Sharpe,” Bloom states, “the vast majority of vacancies are in positions that provide direct care to patients.”

Bloom’s order focuses a lot of attention on the DHHR’s policy of hiring temporary contract workers, rather than raising salaries for permanent workers. That policy violates the judge’s 2009 order.

Temporary workers, Bloom points out, typically work between three months and five months. One of those months is spent in training.

The DHHR, Bloom states, “pay[s] out-of-state contracting agencies millions of dollars per year to employ contract workers.”

Under these contracts, registered nurses are paid $53.27 an hour, licensed practical nurses, $37.73 an hour, and health service workers, $39 an hour, according to Bloom’s order. If they worked 2,000 hours during one year, RNs would earn $106,540, LPNs would earn $75,460 and health service workers would earn $78,000.

These salaries are “significantly greater” than the two hospitals currently pay “full-time employees in the same positions, even when benefits are included in the calculation,” Bloom points out.

The two hospitals fail to recruit and retain employees, Bloom adds, because of “their failure to offer competitive salaries.”

Direct care workers employed at Sharpe and Bateman, Bloom adds, “do not receive raises, regardless of years of service, unless the Legislature and Governor issue an across-the-board pay raise for all employees.”

In contracts, Cabell Huntington Hospital, not too far from Bateman, gives its employees an annual cost-of-living increase.

Neither hospital, Bloom writes, has asked the Division of Personnel to increase starting salaries, to create recruiting incentives or provide retention incentives to hospital workers since 2009.

Reach Paul J. Nyden at pjnyden@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5164.

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