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Better care is sought for patients

Five lawmakers urge a remedy for staffing shortages at state mental hospitals after some link the problem to a rise in suicidal acts.

March 28, 2007|Scott Gold and Lee Romney | Times Staff Writers

Five lawmakers with state mental hospitals in their districts called on the Legislature's budget chairs Tuesday to address an accelerating staffing shortage at the institutions, calling it "a crisis of meltdown proportions."

The urgently worded letter came in the wake of a Times report that two Atascadero State Hospital patients had killed themselves and four others had attempted suicide since early February -- an alarming increase that some have tied directly to the staffing shortage.

The lawmakers' appeal also comes a week after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state Department of Mental Health Director Stephen W. Mayberg unveiled a plan to boost salaries at the facilities starting in April.

Mental health clinicians have been leaving the hospitals in droves since a federal judge last December ordered steep pay increases for comparable jobs in the state prison system.

The proposed pay increase crafted by the governor last week is the administration's first concrete attempt to stop the exodus, which has left Atascadero with an 87% vacancy rate for psychiatrists.

The raises will bring psychiatrists and senior psychologists to within 5% of the prison salaries, while other clinicians such as psychiatric technicians will still earn 18% less than their prison counterparts.

Schwarzenegger did not need legislative approval for the temporary salary increases, which will be in effect through June and cost the state $9.4 million.

But the Legislature will have to approve the governor's $37.6-million proposal to maintain them through the next budget year.

"It's a very good solid first step," said Assemblywoman Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa), one of the lawmakers who appealed for action. But "it isn't enough. In a perfect world we'd be paying these very highly dedicated and well-trained, professional staff everything we could."

The raises apply not only to the Department of Mental Health, but to the departments of Developmental Services and Veterans Affairs, which have also lost significant numbers of staff to the prisons.

Evans said there is a "very real possibility" that some of the state hospitals, developmental centers and veterans homes would have to curtail services or close altogether.

In their letter Tuesday, the lawmakers expressed "grave concerns" for the institutions. "Even if immediate action is taken to reverse the brain drain to prisons, it is conservatively estimated that it will take 2-3 years for treatment conditions to normalize to resemble adequate care," they wrote.

Other authors are Sens. Patricia Wiggins (D-Santa Rosa) and Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) and Assembly members Sam Blakeslee (R-San Luis Obispo) and Lois Wolk (D-Davis).

Response to the governor's proposal has been mixed. Some psychiatrists believe the raises will stem further departures. But lower-paid technicians, whose pay raises won't put them anywhere near on par with their prison counterparts, immediately attacked the announcement.

Tony Myers, statewide president of the California Assn. of Psychiatric Technicians, likened it to someone yelling "Fire!" inside Atascadero -- telling everyone to "get out of there."

At Atascadero, about a third of the psychiatric technician positions are vacant, he said, and that was before the governor's announcement caused widespread disillusionment.

"I talk to people every day who say: 'I don't want to leave.' But they aren't being given a choice."

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