Local News

Mental-hospital workers to be retrained after abuse claim

Posted May 6, 2010 1:53 p.m. EDT
Updated May 6, 2010 4:57 p.m. EDT

— The secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services says workers at a troubled state mental hospital will be retrained following an allegation of abuse that went unreported for several days.

"The patient was not harmed. The issue was that they handled it improperly, so we're going to make sure that we're restructuring a whole bunch of training at Cherry Hospital," Lanier Cansler said Thursday. "It really gave us a clue to the fact that they thought they were doing it right."

The intensive training will be for everyone who works at the Goldsboro facility and involve a list of prohibited actions that result in immediate termination, Cansler said.

Cherry Hospital is in jeopardy of losing approximately $800,000 in federal funding following the incident last month in which a mental health technician dragged a 22-year-old male patient and covered his face with a pillow to keep him from spitting while staff tried to restrain him.

Among the findings in a report by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, the hospital "failed to provide care in a safe setting by failing to investigate the allegation of patient abuse in a timely manner" by allowing the same staff member to continue caring for the patient for 19 days after the allegation was reported.

Cansler told members of the Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Joint Legislative Oversight Committee Thursday morning that the incident went unreported for so long, not because staff tried to hide it but because they didn't know they did anything wrong.

No one will lose their job over the case, Cansler said, despite a zero-tolerance policy he put in place soon after taking over the department in 2008.

"I will not hold an employee responsible for doing something improperly if they've never been trained to do it right," he said. "That's our responsibility, and we're going to make sure it happens."

DHHS must now submit a plan of correction detailing the new training by May 21 to CMS, which oversees the federal insurance plans and reimburses hospitals for treating patients under the programs.

The federal agency revoked Cherry Hospital's certification in 2008, when a 50-year-old patient died after staff left him sitting unattended in a chair for nearly 24 hours. The hospital lost an estimated $8 million to $10 million in federal funding as a result.

Three employees were ultimately fired, two resigned and 10 others were disciplined in that incident. Several former employees were also charged with and convicted of physically and sexually assaulting patients in other cases.

Mental health advocates and state officials have blamed a lack of training and inadequate pay as contributing factors to the problems the hospital has faced.

Canser said Gov. Bev Perdue's proposed budget for the next fiscal year provides $500,000 for additional training at state facilities. A federal match would bring the total to around $800,000.