RALEIGH, N.C. — The state's top health official announced Thursday he is delaying closing Raleigh's Dorothea Dix Hospital and the opening of a new mental health facility in Butner.
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dempsey Benton said he was delaying the closing of Dix and John Umstead Hospital in Butner by 60 days to improve operations and to assure sufficient time to address any construction issues with the new hospital.
"My main reason for wanting to do this is to make it as clear as possible that when we occupy that facility, it is ready for patients and ready for the staff," he said.
Dix and John Umstead Hospital in Butner were expected to close in February and merge into the $120 million Central Regional Hospital, but there have been concerns about construction and patient concerns that the plan is moving too fast.
"An external work group will be convened to assess the structural and operational questions associated with opening the new hospital," Benton said.
The group, comprised of experts from Duke Medical Center, UNC Hospitals and the North Carolina Hospital Association, will also review the plan to transition of services from Dix and Umstead to the new hospital.
Officials had planned to close Dix and Umstead in February and move most of their patients to Central by the end of February.
But a recent internal review found 30 types of hazards in the facility, some of which could allow patients to hang themselves.
Benton said extending the transfer completion date until May 1 will give state officials more time to ensure the hospital is safe for patients.
"I don't know how he could have reached another conclusion," said Rep. Verla Insko, D-Orange.
She said that in light of the ongoing problems throughout the state's mental health system, the transition must be done right.
"We don't want to be doing it without a clear understanding it's going to work," Insko said. "We have had failures before. I think the worst thing that could happen would be to move ahead and have some crisis emerge from that action."
Benton said the delay will also give leaders at Broughton Hospital in Morganton more time to improve operations.
The hospital lost its ability to collect Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements in August following a federal investigation into the death of a patient. The facility is now in danger of losing its federal accreditation, and Benton said.
All four state-run psychiatric hospitals currently taking patients have been under pressure recently by the federal government to improve patient safety and administration.
The announcement was part of a plan Benson presented at a news conference to fix the state's mental health system.
“As you know, Gov. Easley gave me clear marching orders back in September – fix the state’s public mental health, developmental disabilities and substance abuse services system,” Benton said. “In the short time I have been here as secretary, I have noticed too often people were ‘talking past each other’ not ‘to each other.’ I am going to change that.”
As part of the plan, Benton is moving the state-operated services section out of the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services to report directly to him. This section is responsible for day-to-day direction of all 14 of the state's public mental health facilities.
A spokesman for Easley said the governor supports Benton's plan.
Benton also announced a new Web site, operational by the end of January, to improve public understanding the activities in the State operated facilities and to ensure transparency.
It will include "a broad array of information," he said, including admissions and discharge data, patient deaths and injuries and staff injuries.
"We want to be open about our hospitals," he said. "So we're going to post all of the news – bad and good – on this site.
He also announced a 5 percent average pay in crease for hospital psychiatrists and a study about whether to increase pay for nurses and other hospital workers.
"We have many fine staff at our institutions," he said. "We want to do everything we can to make the hospitals a good environment for our employees as well as our patients."