JESSUP, Md. - Workers at Maryland's maximum-security mental hospital called on lawmakers Wednesday to support staffing increases at Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center included in Gov. Martin O'Malley's proposed budget.
Boosting staffing at the hospital is one of the key recommendations in a report from consultants hired by the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene after three patient slayings in 13 months at the hospital.
"We're asking for enough staff to improve safety," said Lamont Baker, Perkins security attendant and local president. "We're asking legislators to say yes."
The budget includes the addition of 93 positions: About 65 staffers this fiscal year and 28 more next year. That would bring total staffing to about 605 positions at the hospital with a capacity of 248 patients and increase the facility's budget by about $4.5 million.
"We cannot continue to keep people safe by relying on the use of overtime," said Perkins CEO David Helsel. "It's not sustainable. It's not fair or right or in the interest of safety and good care."
Perkins, which was founded in 1959, is Maryland's only maximum-security psychiatric hospital for patients who need pretrial psychiatric evaluation, have been found not guilty by reason of insanity or who become mentally ill while in prison. Helsel was named to the position in November, just weeks after two patients were charged with killing two fellow patients in separate incidents a week apart. A little more than a year earlier, a male patient was charged in the slaying of a female patient.
Staffers' morale was low after these incidents, but it has improved in recent months under Helsel as they have seen improvements in their conditions, Baker said. A reduction in overtime is welcome, as are other improvements like a new space dedicated to giving those who have worked a second shift a place to sleep before they head back to work, he said.
The 73 recommendations in a preliminary report from consultants hired to evaluate the facility in the wake of the killings is wide ranging, but it stresses that some of the recommendations will be impossible to adopt "in the face of grossly inadequate staffing." Staffers are often ordered to work a second shift and can be assigned to fill an immediate need on a ward where they don't usually work and don't know the patients well.
Other recommendations include adjusting the salary structure for some positions, improving training, shifting some workers' roles to increase accountability and improving communication among staffers and all parties. The report also noted that more patients at Perkins have a history of imprisonment than in the past and recommended different approaches to integrating them into a treatment setting.
"All of the recommendations were things I wanted to do anyway," Helsel said.
The hospital has already hired 53 of the 65 new staffers for this fiscal year to keep up with increased visual monitoring patterns instituted in the wake of the killings and is training ward administrators responsible for the supervision of each unit of about 28 patients, Helsel said. The influx of new staffers will eliminate mandatory overtime and bring the use of overtime down to a more manageable level, but the additional 28 staffers in the 2013 budget will free staffers up to participate in much-needed training and allow more patient therapy on the ward, he said.
Requiring people to constantly work 16 hours puts patients and staff in danger, said Hafeezah Majeed, a Perkins psychiatric technician. It's often those who work the overnight shifts who are asked to work a second shift into the day, which can affect their alertness, she said.
"The more eyes you have on the patients, the better," she said. "You can never have too many eyes working on a maximum security ward."
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