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Union, Hogan administration clash on mental hospital issues

Official says it's a 'crisis' for state agency

Pat Moran. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3, in a file photo. (The Daily Record / Bryan P. Sears)

The largest state employees’ union is calling on the governor and Maryland health officials to increase the number of beds and staffing at state mental hospitals.

The demands come days after the state health secretary appeared before a Baltimore City Circuit Court judge to explain the problem and a working group established  by the secretary published a draft report of recommendations to correct them.

Patrick Moran, president of AFSCME Maryland Council 3, said the problem boils down to money and to Gov. Larry Hogan’s reluctance to spend it.

“(Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Secretary) Van Mitchell acknowledged we need more beds and more staff when he was in front of Judge (Gale) Rasin last week,” Moran said. “The bed shortage is really about the state’s difficulty in attracting and retaining qualified staff for a job that is difficult and doesn’t pay a lot. He’s taking away from the folks who need mental health care and they can’t get it so they languish in jails, and this is unconscionable. We’re not in Louisiana or Mississippi. This is not the 1970s.  He just wants to sit on his surplus.”

The union estimates there are about 536 positions within the agency’s mental health facilities that are open. That figure includes but is not entirely comprised of direct care workers, including psychologists, nurses and other professionals.

The majority of the beds at issue are for so-called forensic patients, those who are incarcerated but in need of mental health treatment ordered by the courts. Moran called it a safety issue.

“The administration has failed to show any momentum in addressing the needs of the staff at these state agencies,” Moran said. “If he’s running the state as a business it’s a horribly run business.”

This is the third time in roughly six weeks that the largest state employees’ union in Maryland has taken aim at Hogan and criticized him for staffing shortages, focusing earlier on state prisons and parole and probation agencies.

Meanwhile, a DHMH spokesman acknowledged the agency is struggling with what Mitchell called a crisis but questioned the timing of the union’s rally Monday afternoon outside three closed buildings on the grounds of the Spring Grove Hospital Center.

“The timing of this is interesting — a rally to decry something we’ve been addressing for four months now,” said Christopher Garrett, a spokesman for the department, adding that the union has had representatives at the four public meetings.

Mitchell appeared in Baltimore City Circuit Court on Aug. 2 to address this issue as part of a lawsuit filed by four city residents who have been stuck in jail for weeks even though they were ordered by courts to be sent to state mental health hospitals.

“The state has been working aggressively to try and fix the problem,” said Garrett.  “This is a years-old problem. It didn’t just pop up. It’s been growing and becoming more serious in recent years.”

Mitchell identified the problem in an April letter to a Prince George’s County Circuit Court judge in which he called the issue “a crisis” within the department. It was in that letter that Mitchell announced the creation of a working group to begin looking at the issue.

Garrett declined to say how much the recommendations might cost to implement or how much the agency would need to get to an adequate level of staffing and beds, other than to say it would cost “a fair amount.”

“There’s certainly a cost component to it,” Garrett said. “It’s a bit early for us to be talking about the budget. It would just be a number in a vacuum. We haven’t even gotten to the point of seeing the final recommendations.”

Just two days after Mitchell appeared in a city courtroom, the working group convened by the secretary concluded a series of public hearings and released a draft report with 19 recommendations. Some of the recommendations, including the addition of 24 beds to relieve the backlog of court-ordered cases, are meant to go into effect in the near future following the release of a final draft of the report at the end of the month.

“The secretary is not interested to have a group that perpetually studies the problem,” Garrett said. “He wants to have solutions that can be implemented as quickly as possible.”