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Health Team

Construction begins on replacement for troubled mental hospital

Posted October 1, 2010 8:06 a.m. EDT
Updated October 1, 2010 4:49 p.m. EDT

— Gov. Beverly Perdue and other state officials on Friday broke ground on a new state mental hospital in Goldsboro.

The three-story, $138 million hospital, which will replace the aging Cherry Hospital, will employ 1,000 people and have 316 beds and outpatient services to serve patients in 38 eastern North Carolina counties. It is scheduled to open in March 2013.

"It's not just to have a new building. It's to have improved and better services for the people we serve," Secretary of Health and Human Services Lanier Cansler said.

Amid the fanfare of the groundbreaking ceremony, an advocacy group called on Perdue and state lawmakers to halt construction on the hospital and reallocate the money for community services for mentally ill people.

"The building of this hospital doesn't do anything to address the current mental health crisis," said Vicki Smith, executive director of Disabilities Rights North Carolina. "It doesn't reduce the long waits for people in emergency rooms. It doesn't prevent people from going into crisis in the first place.

"It's not that the facilities at Cherry aren't old and need to be replaced," Smith said. "Rather, it's that (state officials) aren't paying the same amount of attention on community-based care."

The new Goldsboro hospital will be the second of three psychiatric hospitals to replace aging state facilities. A new mental hospital in Butner opened in 2008, and work to replace Broughton Hospital in Morganton will begin in 2011.

Smith called the construction effort "fiscally irresponsible," but Perdue said the new Cherry Hospital is needed, noting that Cherry "is falling down around us."

"There are always going to be people in institutions in North Carolina," the governor said. "If we're going to have institutional care, we need to have our patients in institutions that are decent, that are safe and that can provide caring and rehabilitative treatment."

Smith also maintains that Cherry has had problems finding enough staff in the past and suggested that it might be better to build a new facility somewhere else Perdue said that it's important to keep the hospital in Goldsboro for patient access and jobs, noting it would create 650 construction jobs in Wayne County.

Cherry Hospital has been plagued in recent years by charges of patient abuse and questionable deaths.

In 2008, U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services revoked the hospital's certification, costing it an estimated $8 million to $10 million in federal funding as a result.

The federal agency reacted after the death of Steven Sabock, a 50-year-old patient who choked on his medication, hit his head and was left sitting in a chair for 22 hours, unattended and without food. Surveillance video shows employees playing cards and watching TV a few feet from the dying patient.

In the wake of Sabock's death, an entire ward was shut down, the hospital's director resigned, and consultants were hired to retrain staff. Cansler instituted a zero-tolerance policy toward employees found to have abused or neglected patients.

The zero-tolerance policy has been tested this year by the firing of Cherry Hospital worker O'Tonious Raynor, who hospital officials said used excessive force against a schizophrenic patient who punched him. In an appeal, Administrative Law Judge Joe Webster issued a preliminary opinion agreeing that Raynor used excessive force but said he should have been suspended, not fired.

Smith has said that hospital handled the situation correctly.

"We support the firing, and we support Secretary Cansler's zero-tolerance policy of abuse," she said.

Cherry Hospital nearly lost federal funding again this year after a March incident in which a mental health technician dragged a 22-year-old patient and covered his face with a pillow to keep him from spitting while staff tried to restrain him.

Federal authorities found that the hospital violated patient safety by allowing the same staff member to continue to care for the same patient for 19 days after the abuse allegations were reported.