State trying to fix shortages of beds
By REGGIE PONDER
Sunday, January 25, 2009
For Hyde County Sheriff David Mason, the face of North Carolina’s mental health system is the time officers have to spend watching severely ill patients and waiting to take them to a state hospital for treatment.
“I sat with one for 39 hours myself,” Mason said Friday. He said it was bad enough when a department with enough deputies to provide relief had to rotate officers through several consecutive shifts to watch a patient, but a small department that can’t do that might find one individual tied up for a full day and a half.
“It’s a total failure,” Mason said of the state’s mental health system. “The State of North Carolina needs to contract out with another state because the State of North Carolina has fallen right off the scale with it. Terrible is not even a word to describe it.”
Patients aren’t getting the quality or quantity of treatment they need, he said.
Mason found no comfort at Thursday night’s meeting of the Albemarle Mental Health Center Board of Directors with state officials from the Division of Mental Health and county commissioners, county managers and department heads from the 10 counties served by the Albemarle area mental health management agency.
“I didn’t hear a thing that said there were any improvements coming,” he said.
Mason said the problem for sheriff’s departments, which transport severely ill patients to state psychiatric hospitals, had been getting worse for years.
“This is not a new issue,” he said. “It’s an ongoing issue.”
The problems arise when state hospitals refuse to receive patients, he said.
Leza Wainwright, state DMH director, said when Mason raised the issue at Thursday’s meeting that state officials couldn’t “pretend” to have “unlimited elasticity” at the state psychiatric hospitals. When it’s unsafe for both existing patients and staff to add another patient at a hospital, officials will make the tough decision to refuse additional patients, she said.
State officials don’t like people having to stay in local emergency rooms for extended periods, she said, and the answer is additional beds for psychiatric treatment at community hospitals.
The state hospitals should be for “people who can’t be served elsewhere” and people who need a three-day stay to adjust their medication should be served in the community hospitals, she said.
Wainwright said Albemarle Hospital was interested in adding psychiatric beds and Chowan Hospital also might be willing to add inpatient psychiatric treatment to its services.
The General Assembly has appropriated $20 million to “grow” inpatient hospital beds in the state, she said.
Wainwright said officers’ 30- and 40-hour stays with patients “won’t stop tomorrow” but state officials are working toward such circumstances being extremely rare.
The only way to ease the pressure for sheriff’s departments is through the statewide effort to develop community inpatient psychiatric beds, she said.
“We’re really hoping that hospitals will begin to re-open those beds and re-offer those services,” Wainwright said.
An Albemarle Hospital spokesman said Friday the hospital expects to receive a proposal from DMH within 60 days regarding the possible opening of inpatient psychiatric beds.
“Beyond that, we would have to wait until we saw the proposal,” said Chip Romanovich, hospital spokesman.