Judge finds West Virginia agency in contempt of orders regarding state's psychiatric hospitals


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CHARLESTON, West Virginia — A judge has ordered two West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources officials to appear at a hearing later this month after finding the agency in contempt of court orders regarding staffing shortages at the state's two psychiatric hospitals.

The DHHR also must immediately reduce the number of patients at William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston and at Mildred-Mitchell Bateman Hospital in Huntington to alleviate understaffing until the agency submits a plan approved by the court, Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Duke Bloom said in the order issued Tuesday, The Charleston Gazette (http://bit.ly/1mjF83X ) reported.

Bloom scheduled a show-cause hearing for July 15 to determine whether to impose sanctions against the DHHR. He ordered Health and Human Resources Secretary Karen Bowling and Victoria Jones, commissioner of the Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, to appear at the hearing.

"Despite the court's orders, many of the same problems that have run rampant since 2009 persist today," Bloom wrote. "As laid out in the court's June 3, 2014, order, patients at the hospitals are suffering from inadequate direct care and lacking community integration opportunities. The hospitals have failed to recruit and retain direct care staff, failed to comply with court orders regarding pay raises for direct care workers, failed to offer community integration services, and have consequently failed to provide direct care to patients at the hospitals."

As of March 30, there were 48 vacant positions at Sharpe and 41 vacancies at Bateman..

Bloom's order is the latest in a case originally filed in 1981 by a group of patients at the Huntington hospital. The case, known as the Hartley case, centers on the treatment of mental health patients.

Allison Adler, the DHHR's spokeswoman, told the newspaper that the order marks the first time the DHHR has been declared in contempt in the case's history.

In June, Bloom rejected proposals submitted by the DHHR to address staffing shortages, noncompetitive wages for workers and other issues at the hospitals. One proposal would have privatized the facilities, while another would make all employees contract workers. The other proposal would have made all employees classified as exempt under Division of Personnel code.

"The Bureau developed and provided three options which were in compliance with the Judge's directives," Jones told the newspaper in a statement. "No action by the Bureau warrants a contempt order. We are continuing to provide the highest quality of care for our patients and to strive for a positive working environment for our employees."

Jones had testified at an April hearing that the DHHR has utilized contractual employees and mandatory overtime to keep the hospitals adequately staffed.


Information from: The Charleston Gazette, http://www.wvgazette.com

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