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DHHS to update lawmakers on state mental hospitals

Department officials say the problems they are experiencing are systemic and that they are working hard to fix them.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Officials with the Department of Health and Human Services will provide an update to lawmakers Thursday on the status of the state's mental health hospitals.

The four facilities have come under scrutiny in the past two years for a variety of issues related to patient care and safety.

Most recently, the federal Center for Medicare and Medicaid withdrew federal funding from Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro following the death of Steven Sabock. Workers neglected the 50-year-old as he sat in the same chair for 22 hours before his April 29 death.

Three workers were fired and two others resigned as a result. Four other employees were fired in August and two were charged with assault in connection with the beating of another patient.

The state's newest psychiatric facility in Butner, Central Regional Hospital, opened months later than expected. And workers at Dorothea Dix in Raleigh have long complained about unsafe working conditions.

Broughton Hospital in Morganton temporarily lost federal funding after a patient died last year. It also lost its accreditation for federal funding.

"We feel like we have competent staff," said Dr. James Osbert, chief of State Operated Services, which oversees mental health services. "The issues really were in changing some major cultural and operational kind of problems that have been in existence at Cherry, frankly, for many, many years."

Department officials hired an outside consulting firm, the Compass Group to help correct problems at Cherry Hospital. In a recent report, Compass stated the hospital's leadership team has not demonstrated the ability to manage change, saying its "overwhelmed by the magnitude" of the problem.

Federal regulators are back at Central Regional conducting an extensive review of the hospital's operations. It came under fire for questionable practices earlier this year, partly because the hospital has never merged with Dorothea Dix in Raleigh.

Central Regional was intended to combine the operations from John Umstead Hospital in Butner and Dorothea Dix, but Dix patients are still waiting to movein part, because of ongoing safety issues. Umstead patients moved into the $130 million facility in July.

"You know, there's not a specific target date (to move Dix patients to Central Regional)," Osbert said. "It's based on completing the consolidation work and meeting the requirements set aside by the General Assembly."

Experts and mental health advocates both say Dempsey Benton, director of the Department of Health and Human Services, inherited a broken system, and Benton has described problems as systemic.

Department officials say they are working hard to fix them.

David Kochman, communications director for Governor-elect Bev Perdue's transition office, said in a statement Wednesday that Perdue will be a hands-on governor and will expect the same type of leadership out of her cabinet secretaries.

"While it's too early to commit to specific personnel decisions, she’s going to make sure our mental health system works for the patients and families it serves," he said.



Bruce Mildwurf, Reporter
Edward Wilson, Photographer
Kelly Gardner, Web Editor

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