Local News

Patient advocates: N.C.'s mental health system needs fixing

Posted August 28, 2008 7:32 p.m. EDT
Updated August 28, 2008 9:12 p.m. EDT

— Recent reports of patient abuse and neglect at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro is more proof that the state's troubled mental health-care system needs restructuring and more funding, patient advocates say.

"There isn't a system of psychiatric facilities in this state," said Vicki Smith, executive director of Disability Rights North Carolina. "What we have are individual hospitals."

Smith said there needs to be a consistent standard level of care across the state's four psychiatric hospitals and that right now, hospitals only try to meet the minimum standards of care to receive funding.

She blamed that on job vacancies, lack of training, lack of supervision and oversight and inadequate pay. Many state agencies also rely on a temporary work force, and that means the quality of patient care is not always the same, she said.

Better recruiting and retention are needed, she said, to attract more qualified and attractive job candidates.

It's something the state's mental health oversight committee also suggested at a meeting earlier this week. John Tote, with the Mental Health Association in North Carolina, says the General Assembly needs to make more funding available.

Advocates believe Health and Human Services Secretary Dempsey Benton has taken aggressive steps to overhaul the system since taking over last year.

For example, he's starting to hold workers more accountable, Smith said. His recent decision to close a ward at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro in the wake of a patient's death sends a big message, she said, partly because there aren't enough beds for patients there.

On Thursday, Benton said the Division of Mental Health must find an independent hospital management firm to evaluate Cherry Hospital.

However, Smith and Tote are concerned that any progress Benton is making could suffer a setback when a new governor is elected in November and if a new DHHS secretary is appointed.

"Four months left scares me," Smith said. "What concerns me is that with a new administration, the tendency will be to study the problems."

That would not be true if the gubernatorial candidates are already investigating and discussing the problems the mental health system faces. Advocates say they have not heard any specific plans from either candidate so far, however.

"Folks are going to be behind the eight ball, and if that's the case we'll see a perpetuation of the situation," Tote said.