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Lawmaker: Lack of pay to blame for broken mental health system

Posted August 26, 2008

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— Mental health officials briefed a legislative oversight committee Wednesday on the corrective actions they have taken in the wake of the death of a 50-year-old Cherry Hospital patient who was left alone for more than 22 hours without food or care.

But the progress report did little to satisfy the concerns of lawmakers, who believe the problem goes beyond a single incident and say more needs to be done.

"They're systemic, their pervasive, and you can't gloss over them and say it's an event or the system broke down here," said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, co-chairman of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services.

"That's not what's going on. We have a lack of training, lack of appropriate personnel," he said.

And, Newsbitt said, a lack of pay.

Entry-level health-care workers, for example, make a little more than $23,000 a year. And he's worried some of those employees have little concern for the patients.

"Sometimes, we have some of our least-trained qualified folks at those levels providing direct care services," said Michael Lancaster, co-director of the state Division of Mental Health Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services. "We have to enhance our training."

The hospital's director earns roughly $115,000 a year. Nesbitt said that is not enough to attract top candidates.

"And if we need salary provisions and those kinds of things to hire the appropriate people to run these hospitals, we need to do it, and we need to do it as soon as we can," Nesbitt said.

Despite the controversy, division officials maintain their confidence in current Cherry Hospital director Jack St. Clair.

"I think if we look at his record, he's making very serious efforts toward reforming and doing things about this," Lancaster said.

Some advocates for patients, however, don't share that level of confidence in the hospital's director.

Lawmakers insist that because the system is broken, the focus should now go beyond Cherry Hospital.

"We need to fix this thing," Nesbitt said.

The average pay for the 3.600 frontline health-care technicians throughout the state's psychiatric hospitals is $25,000.

Nesbitt hopes the Legislature will address this issue during the next session.

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  • 68_polara Aug 27, 2008

    We are seeing the same issues in the parole and corrections departments. Few good candidates are applying for 25,000 a year jobs. Thank you Governor Easly for holding down state employees pay.

  • colliedave Aug 26, 2008

    Entry-level health-care workers, for example, make a little more than $23,000 a year. And he's worried some of those employees have little concern for the patients

    The fire them!

  • ccs1920 Aug 26, 2008

    scubagirl/ You have hit the nail on the head. The same is what is wrong with most nursing homes. My mother was in one for two years and the care was terrible. I want to name the home but WRAL won't approve it. I've tried several times. Many friends have told me that the homes their family menbers are in are no better. It's nearly unbelievable what they hire to work in the homes.

  • d1_standing Aug 26, 2008

    The problem with mental health is that the state decided that private industries would do a better job at providing services than state ran facilities. It may save tax payers money, maybe, but the long term implications are revealed media reports and utilization reviews which show those who have mental illnesses are receiving poor care; however, private industries are doing just fine.

  • Tax Man Aug 26, 2008

    If you raise the pay then you definitely need to raise the hiring level - the people who work there now are basically minimum wage folks that couldn't get a job a McDonalds. If you hire good quality educated employees you will have a better system. I have met some of these caregivers over the last fifteen years and I would not trust my dog to them for a 15 minute walk! They are not worth the pay they are given. We have a pool of very talented and educated caregivers in this area - they need to be adequately compensated, with a good bonus (merit based) and retirement plan. Hope they can fix this.

  • Scubagirl Aug 26, 2008

    "That's not what's going on. We have a lack of training, lack of appropriate personnel," he said.

    And, Newsbitt said, a lack of pay."

    AND LACK OF CARING ON THE PART OF THE EMPLOYEE! There are so many folks out there who do care and will work for that but nooooooo they gotta hire the lazy and uncaring!