Raleigh, N.C. — About two dozen staffers gathered outside Dorothea Dix Hospital at noon Friday to protest what they called dangerous working conditions.
Protesters said they are concerned about chronic under-staffing, mandatory overtime and low wages at the state's mental-health hospitals.
"I do staffing at this hospital," Beverly Moriarty, a nurse who has worked at Dix for 12 years, said. "Staffing is horrendous."
The protest was held during workers' lunch hour and organized by the North Carolina Public Service Workers' Union.
Those working conditions pose a danger to patients and staff and make it difficult to provide quality care, protesters said.
"Is somebody going to have to die before they give us enough staffing to the jobs we're supposed to be doing?" said Larsene Taylor, a health-care technician at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro and chair of the union's chapter for workers in the state Department of Health and Human Services.
Gov. Mike Easley recently all mental-health facilities to report all deaths to local medical examiners as part of an effort to reform state mental health care.
Protesters said the problems caused by under-staffing at Dorothea Dix will only be exacerbated when Central Regional Hospital in Butner opens on July 1. Dix will close on the same date, and patients will be moved to the new hospital, beginning in mid June.
"The people here, even though they have said they will go to a secure job, 50 percent of those people likely will not go to Butner," Moriarty said. "So, the staffing in Butner is compromised."
The opening of Central was delayed once in January, after patients complained the move was happening to fast and an internal review found 30 types of hazards at the new hospital.
DHSS officials admitted that staffing will be challenge in the new hospital, but said they will be able to meet it.
"I don't think we'll have every position filled, but I do think, I know we'll have enough staff in position to operate the hospital," Dr. Jim Osberg, with the DHHS' Division of Mental Health, said.
The state will keep 60 beds open at the Dix campus for about three years to help with the transition to the new hospital.
Osberg said more workers must be hired to improve care at the state's mental health-care facilities.
"With better staffing ratios, we could provide better care, perhaps even reduce problems like excessive use of restraints or seclusion or restrict intervention when those things happen," Osberg said.
Easley and a legislative committee have identified state psychiatric hospitals and crisis centers as areas that need immediate attention. Easley's office has said it will push this spring for the General Assembly to increase hiring to cut down on the staff-to-patient ratio.
The entire state's mental health-care system has been under fire lately, amid years of claims of wasted money, inadequate services and patient neglect and abuse.