Raleigh, N.C. — Gov. Mike Easley says patients are dying in North Carolina's psychiatric hospitals and that needs to stop. One response has been new guidelines that went into effect last week and that require all deaths in state-operated mental-health facilities to be reported to the local medical examiner's office.
Before, hospitals told medical examiners only if a death was the result of suicide, violence or an unknown cause.The policy was changed to increase openness and oversight in the mental-health system, Department of Health and Human Services officials said.
Autopsies will be conducted at the discretion of the medical examiner.
Dempsey Benton, secretary of the department, talked to lawmakers Wednesday about their efforts to improve the mental-health system.
“I think what you're putting forward is a good first step, but as they say 'the proof is in the pudding,'” he said.
“This is only one step in a comprehensive re-examination of our procedures covering the death of anyone in the care of our facilities,” said James Osberg, chief of State-Operated Services Section, which oversees the state's 15 mental heath, developmental disabilities and substance abuse facilities.
The state's mental-health system has been struggling with problems and claims of abuse for years.
For the first time in two months, Benton addressed the legislative Mental Health Oversight Committee Wednesday.
A committee report identified areas that need immediate attention, including the state's psychiatric hospitals and crisis centers and accountability of mental-health services.
The department is working on legislation it wants to see proposed.
“We're very much working on the details in order to get our package to the governor's office,” Benton said.
“We need to attack the problems swiftly and justly,” said Rep. Van Braxton, D-Lenoir.
The package, which won't be ready for Easley for several more weeks – includes the mental-health department's agenda for the legislative session – which begins in mid-May.
“But I think we'll be able to get our package together, so it gets reasonable consideration,” Benton said.
The department plans to ask for increased funding for more hospital beds, cameras in all hospital restraint rooms, staff increases and incentives.
The agency needs more workers, “especially in the skilled jobs because our ratios are on the low-end,” Benton said.
Just last year, turnover among nurses was more than 30 percent at Dorthea Dix state psychiatric hospital in Raleigh.
Benton said he will ask the General Assembly for an additional $65 million to $70 million to improve mental-health care.