Local News

Dorothea Dix move delayed for fifth time

Posted September 25, 2008 5:38 a.m. EDT
Updated September 25, 2008 12:34 p.m. EDT

— A Superior Court judge granted a temporary restraining order Thursday that will delay for the fifth time the closure of Dorothea Dix Hospital.

About 170 adult patients were scheduled to move, beginning Oct. 1, from the state psychiatric hospital in Raleigh to the new $130 million Central Regional Hospital in Butner.

But Judge Allen Baddour, ruling on a class-action lawsuit that Disability Rights North Carolina filed Tuesday, said the likelihood of harm and potential harm to patients outweighs the state's position to move patients now.

The disability rights advocacy group cited concerns about remaining safety issues at Central Regional and claims that the state has failed to meet conditions for the move as outlined under state law.

It says it is not against the move but wants it to happen after all issues have been resolved.

Insisting the facility is safe and that any remaining concerns are in the process of being resolved, state attorneys for the Department of Health and Human Services had asked for the lawsuit to be dismissed.

Postponing the move, the state says in its motion, would cost about $350,000 a month.

A hearing on the matter is scheduled for Oct. 6.

Michael Lancaster, co-director of the Division of Mental Health and interim director at Central Regional, said Thursday that Baddour's ruling is a disappointment but not a surprise.

John Rittelmeyer, an attorney for DRNC, said he is ready move forward with the case.

"We are prepared to move forward on Oct. 6 and prove to the judge's satisfaction that conditions at Central Regional Hospital are not currently adequate for the care of the additional 170 patients from Dorothea Dix," he said.

Federal regulators made an unannounced visit to Central Regional Wednesday to investigate complaints. DHHS officials have refused to comment on the inspection.

The lawsuit lists 15 concerns it says will not be corrected or fixed before Oct. 1, including issues with Central Regional's wireless system, which operates all communications.

"Whenever the system is 'down,' it must be treated as an emergency," the complaint states, and it claims that as recently as last week, neither phones nor pagers worked for more than an hour, "negatively affecting the treatment of an acutely ill patient."

The DRNC also points to problems with the hospital's emergency alert system, saying it averages 10 false alarms a day, resulting in staff ignoring the duress calls. And it states that staff have not received adequate training, which could compromise patient care.

Lancaster has said safety is the first priority at the new hospital. In a letter Tuesday, Lancaster addressed the number of false emergency alarms, saying they've decreased to fewer than two per shift.

He also talks about a number of concerns that arise by keeping patients at Dix, including outdated building codes and fire alarm systems and difficulties in having staff assigned to both hospitals.

"These are significant concerns about prolonging the occupation of these older buildings," Lancaster wrote.

Eventually, Central Regional will replace both Dix and John Umstead Hospital, which is also in Butner. Umstead patients moved to the facility in July.

But for Dix patients to move, state law requires assurances from two accrediting agencies. One, the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, won't find Central Regional in compliance until patients move in, however.