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Chieftain Uncovers a Mess at the State Hospital in Pueblo
Chieftain uncovers a mess at the state hospital in Pueblo
Officials at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo have been keeping a secret. So, too, have officials at the state Department of Human Services, the agency that oversees it.
Were it not for some terrific reporting and tenacity by The Chieftain's Peter Roper, even state legislators from our area might not have learned about the secret.
Well, the secret is out, and it's a bad one. It turns out that the CMHIP is so low on staffing that it has denied leave for employees, and also forced them to work brutal overtime shifts.
And, the staffing levels are so low that the federal Medicare program has set a June 28 deadline for the institution to fix its problem or face the consequences.
And that could include loss of Medicare status, aka, loss of federal funds.
Tired employees always struggle to do a good job. At a place like the state hospital, tired employees also can find themselves in dangerous situations.
The working conditions have become so bad that not only can't the hospital recruit staffers, some staff members are resigning.
Alarmed by The Chieftain's reports, state Sen. Leroy Garcia and state Rep. Daneya Esgar, Pueblo Democrats, jumped into the mess.
They demanded official reports so they can study the problem. And Monday, Garcia and Esgar toured the hospital and promised to tour it again weekly until things improve.
All of this came to light when The Chieftain learned last week -- and reported -- that the hospital's innovative CIRCLE program was being shut down, at least temporarily. Hospital officials said it couldn't staff the program, which treats individuals who are mentally ill and also have addiction problems.
"There has been a complete breakdown in communication between the hospital administration and its line staff," Garcia claimed after he and Esgar toured the hospital.
Like The Pueblo Chieftain, both have had numerous calls from hospital employees about management issues at the hospital, including reports that staff have been forced to work double shifts to make up for the 97 vacant positions in patient care.
That's a shortage that federal Medicare regulators want remedied by June 28 or, they say, they will kick the 449-bed hospital out of the federal insurance program.
As we've reported, the problem isn't money. The state Legislature increased funding. And as Pueblo County Commissioner Sal Pace pointed out, there are marijuana tax funds earmarked for the hospital as well.
Could there be mismanagement and/or inflexible state oversight that dictates the ratio of administrators to staff to patients? Possibly.
"They are top-heavy with administrators and they haven't done anything to get tangible results in addressing the staffing problem in the past year," Garcia said, adding that he and Esgar both intend to make weekly visits to CMHIP as it faces the Medicare deadline.
Esgar said lawmakers have known that CMHIP struggles to hire staff, but they didn't know staffing had fallen so low and that the hospital had failed state inspections last February and again in June.
Nancy VanDeMark, DHS's head of behavioral sciences, told The Chieftain last week the hospital has 97 vacancies in 723 "direct care" positions -- too many vacancies for inspectors from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment, who did the February staff inspection.
Garcia was frustrated that neither officials from DHS nor the state health department divulged the serious staffing situation in meetings with lawmakers during the recent session of the General Assembly.
"I believe they were trying to conceal it from us," he said, noting that lawmakers appropriated more money for the CIRCLE addiction program this year -- even as CMHIP officials knew they were facing a staff shake-up.
Asked what long-term remedy CMHIP officials were suggesting, Esgar said DHS intends to hire a consultant to review the staffing problems.
"The national nursing shortage isn't going away," she said. "But we have to figure out a way to incentivize people to work at CMHIP."
We applaud Garcia and Esgar for jumping into the middle of this mess. Staffing levels must be improved at the hospital, and officials are going to have to offer whatever incentives it takes to make it work.
This may take some out-of-the box thinking, and it's no time for business-as-usual bureaucracy or oppressive state practices to get in the way.
We hope state hospital and state officials have learned a valuable lesson here: Don't try to hide a major problem. Reach out to area legislators -- preferably during the session -- and say, "We need help, desperately, and we don't know what to do."
The help is there. Being secretive is no way to solicit it.