Union workers at a state-operated inpatient psychiatric and substance abuse facility in Middletown say they’re at their breaking point and they want Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell to do something about it.
Described by many of the workers as a problem brewing over the past few years, the issue of mandatory overtime was only compounded by the early retirements last year and the recent closure of another psychiatric hospital in Newington.
The staffing problems at Connecticut Valley Hospital date back to the 2003 when the state laid off thousands of employees and it was compounded by last year’s early retirement and the closure of the Newington hospital, union officials said Wednesday at a small protest outside the governor’s Capitol office.
In a report created by the New England Health Care Employees Union it shows that for the general psychiatric division in May only one of the shifts did not use any mandatory overtime. And even with the massive reliance on overtime to fill the shifts, 623 slots went unfilled, the report shows.
Albert Honegan, who has worked at the hospital for 21 years as a mental health assistant, said he just finished working six straight days of mandatory overtime. “I came in at 3 p.m. and I left at 7:15 a.m. There are some employees come in 7 a.m. and leave at 11:30 p.m.“
“We’re just really tired. The patients are tired of seeing us tired. We can’t provide the quality care because we’re exhausted half the time. And we’re just asking something be done,” said Honegan.
“We’re just here today to say something needs to change,” he added.
Tamara Cunningham, who was transferred from Cedarcrest to CVH at the end of March, said she doesn’t understand why the state closed two hospitals to save money and somehow there’s still not enough staff to adequately care for patients.
Things are changing, a spokesman for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, the state agency in charge of the hospital, said Wednesday.
Jim Siemianowski conceded there have been increases in overtime use since the early retirement plan was implemented last July. He said the hospital lost 130 staff members, but it also recently received permission to fill 20 of those vacancies and in the meantime has been using temporary workers to maintain established posts. About 113 staff have been transferred from Newington to Middletown and the agency hasn’t asked the state for additional money to pay its overtime costs.
The use of overtime has temporarily increased as patients are transferred from Newington to Middletown. Currently there are 604 patients and 1,475 full and part-time staff.
He said over the past two weeks overtime hours have dropped by almost 1,100 hours.
Then is the union’s report inaccurate?
Siemianowski said the report only looked at one unit in the hospital and his numbers include all three hospital units.
“Staffing levels at CVH meet or exceed those typically seen in state-run inpatient psychiatric facilities,” Siemianowski said. “In fact several reviews that have been conducted at CVH indicated that our staff to patient ratios are among the best in the nation.”
Helene Sands-Proulx, a nurse that works with 20 patients that suffer from traumatic brain injuries, said the lack of staffing means her patients sometimes have to sit longer in their urine because she can’t help them all at once. She said most days there’s only one or two other workers on the shift with her.
“We don’t have the staff to be timely,” she said.
The influx of temporary workers didn’t help the problem because many of the patients weren’t going to cooperate with strangers.
Deborah Chernoff, spokeswoman for the New England Health Care Employees Union said, it’s proven time and time again in psychiatry that “it’s the relationship that heals.” If these patients don’t have a relationship with the staff it makes things difficult, she said.
“What we’ve tried to do with this report is provide some empirical data to back up the real life experience,” Chernoff said.