Caregivers testify on dangerous staffing conditions at Maine psychiatric hospitals

Caregivers testify on dangerous staffing conditions at Maine psychiatric hospitals

Staff of Riverview Psychiatric Hospital and Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Hospital testified yesterday in front of the Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee in support of LD 1645, a bill that would increase wages to improve conditions at State Mental Health facilities.

“This is a critical first step in addressing lingering staffing shortages that threaten the wellbeing of both our mental health care providers and the patients they serve,” said Representative Aaron Frey (D-Bangor), cosponsor of the proposal and member of the Appropriations Committee, in a statement. “By offering competitive wages that recognize the inherent challenges in this work, we can help recruit and keep skilled workers who can help us begin to combat serious failings in care.”

Riverview Psychiatric Center, in particular, continues to struggle with serious gaps in core staffing which have worsened significant issues affecting management and patient care. The hospital lost federal certification in 2013 largely due to shortages of both nurses and mental health counselors, a problem the state has yet to resolve.

In 2015, mental health workers at the hospitals clocked 23,558 hours of overtime, with many working multiple extra shifts a week in order to maintain bare minimum staffing requirements. Staff who spoke to the committee warned that the resulting exhaustion can be detrimental to patient care.

“I have stood with my co-workers as they have cried after being mandated because they are exhausted and being forced to stay another eight hours,” said Blair Fenning, a former mental health care worker at Riverview, according to MPBN. “The reality is, due to the low staffing levels, we are only creating a dangerous environment that need not happen if the facility were adequately staffed.”

Riverview currently has a staffing shortage of 35 positions out of 364 in total. The bill being considered, sponsored by Republican Senator Roger Katz of Augusta, would raise wages for mental health workers, nurses, acuity specialists, psychologists, and other direct care staff that have high levels of vacancies.

“Turnover is a problem. We may get new staff in the door to start working, but the toll of the difficult work combined with the overtime, unreliable scheduling, and low pay means that we aren’t able to keep the positions filled.  LD 1645 would help get our staffing levels up so we can spend more time with the patients, allow us to have time to take them outdoors, and give us the ability to de-escalate difficult situations before they get bad,” said Shelby Moreau, a mental health worker at Riverview and an officer of AFSCME, one of two unions representing hospital employees.

Increasing wages to remain competitive in the job market is a model that has worked to address recruitment and retention in similar situations. Last year the Legislature allocated funding to increase wages for corrections officers in the Department of Corrections. Staffing vacancies at the Maine State Prison dropped dramatically from 65 before the increases took effect to a number in the teens today.

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