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

Entry-level workers make about $23,000 a year. Sen. Martin Nesbitt says he's worried some of those employees have little concern for patients.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — 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.