Charleston Daily Mail, Charleston, WV – Thursday, October 18, 2012

The state Department of Health and Human Resources spends millions of dollars on overtime at two state-run psychiatric hospitals and asks staffers to work 16-hour shifts on consecutive days, according to testimony and evidence presented Wednesday in Kanawha County Circuit Court.

DHHR also failed to comply with a 2009 court order that required the department to give more than $500,000 in raises to staffers who work with psychiatric patients.

Kanawha Circuit Judge Duke Bloom ordered DHHR to give the raises after he heard testimony during Wednesday’s hearing. The hearing was meant to update Bloom on the so-called Hartley Case, a 1981 case that remains open and centers on the treatment of mental health patients in the state.

A staffer at William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston said the hospital was suffering staff shortages because of vacancies. In turn, staffers are being asked to work long hours.

That’s wearing down staff, said Jamie Beaton, the Sharpe staffer who testified.

“They get tired,” Beaton said of coworkers. “They get short tempered, so to speak. They get a short fuse.”

Patient advocates and union officials contend the shortages exist because the state is underpaying its workers. They also say the shortages mean that patients are suffering from lower quality care. Beaton is a member of UE Local 170, which represents some state workers.

Data from Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital in Huntington also shows staffers there are working long hours.

A report prepared by Bateman CEO Vickie Jones shows 21 staffers worked more than 56 hours apiece during one week in mid-August. Their normal workweek would be 40 if not for the overtime.

The report shows one staffer worked a 16-hour day on Sunday, Aug. 12; then 12 hours on Monday; then 16 hours on Tuesday; and then 12 hours on Wednesday. Another worked three 16-hour days in a row.

All of this costs money.

Jones said the state’s overtime costs are “greater than $1 million” a year per hospital.

The costs were actually $3.4 million for the two hospitals, according to overtime records obtained by UE 170 representative John Thompson.

In an interview after the hearing, Thompson said DHHR’s own records showed Bateman’s overtime bill was $2.1 million and Sharpe’s was $1.2 million.

The state is also hiring temp workers and contractors to alleviate the stress on full-time staffers, Jones said.

All the while, DHHR failed to comply with a 2009 court order meant to increase the pay for workers who deal directly with psychiatric patients, Jones said Wednesday under questioning from Bloom and Jennifer Wagner, an attorney at Mountain State Justice, a Charleston legal aid firm.

After hearing Jones’ testimony, Bloom ordered – again – that DHHR raise the salaries of workers at Sharpe and Bateman.

As part of an August 2009 court order, some 280 staffers were supposed to receive raises of $1,000 or $2,000, but the state failed to live up to its promise.

DHHR had agreed to give the $535,000 in raises. But Jones said that agreement was based on a calculation of salaries made at the time. After the order was entered, DHHR realized that if it counted benefits – like the number of days off the state offers – its current pay package might be more generous than it originally seemed.

“Then, for whatever reason, someone made the decision to re-factor how you calculate market rates?” Bloom asked.

“Yes, your honor,” Jones replied.

Like some of her staff, Jones works a rigorous schedule.

DHHR named Jones the CEO of Bateman in June. But she also remains the acting commissioner for the department’s Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities. She previously held the commissioner’s job full time. Now, Jones spends about two days a week in Huntington and three days in Charleston.