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Editorial: Agency procrastinates on order aimed at boosting hospital staffs

Dec. 30, 2012 @ 10:32 PM

It's no wonder that a court case triggered by West Virginia's care of the mentally ill has dragged on for more than three decades. The state agency in charge of providing the care is still demonstrating that it is less than diligent in carrying out the presiding judge's orders aimed at improving conditions at the state's two psychiatric hospitals.

Unless the state's Department of Health and Human Resources kicks into high gear to comply with Kanawha County Circuit Judge Duke Bloom's most recent order, it could face some costly consequences.

The latest issue related to the Hartley Case, a 1981 case that focuses on treatment of the mentally ill and remains open still today, has to do with an order that Bloom issued in 2009. At that time, the judge told the department to give a total of $500,000 in raises to about 280 key employees at the two state-run psychiatric hospitals, Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital in Huntington and the William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston.

The intention was to help the two hospitals hire and retain well-qualified staff. Employees at both hospitals have complained for years that the hospitals are short-staffed and they must work long overtime hours, hurting the quality of care. In addition, those overtime hours add up; Bateman pays more than $1 million a year in overtime, according to a report in the Charleston Daily Mail.

But in three years since the order was given, DHHR raised the pay of some staffers, but has yet to fully comply. That prompted a court complaint earlier this year from Mountain State Justice, a Charleston-based public interest law firm.

In response, Bloom ruled in October that DHHR must come through with the ordered pay raises by Jan. 1. But weeks passed before the DHHR said in early December that it couldn't meet the judge's deadline and asked for a delay. The agency said it had logistical issues, and it argued that it couldn't give the raises because the Legislature hadn't allocated enough money, according to the Daily Mail report.

Bloom, however, didn't accept the DHHR's arguments. He now has given the department until Jan. 31 to implement the remaining pay raises. If the DHHR doesn't comply, the judge says he will hold the agency in contempt and fine it $50 per employee for each day the raises aren't put into effect. The fines could add up to $20,000 per day, a costly lesson for the DHHR.

The DHHR has had ample time -- three years -- to work out the logistics on granting these pay raises and make its case to the legislature for sufficient money. Its excuses, including that no one had complained until the last few months, aren't compelling.

When asked about the judge's latest deadline, a department spokeswoman told the Daily Mail that "It is DHHR policy to comply with all orders from the court." Let's hope that the agency at last complies with this one and tries to make more inroads toward fuller staffing to care for the patients at the state's two psychiatric hospitals.

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