Damien Nuzzo, a nurse clinical instructor at Connecticut Valley Hospital speaks during a press conference Tuesday. Credit: SEIU 1199 / SEIU 1199 contributed photo

Staff at Connecticut Valley Hospital caring for patients with extensive mental health issues say they are understaffed, burned out, and desperate for the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services to step up hiring ahead of the state’s anticipated “silver tsunami.”

“We are overwhelmed,” Dr. Anca Pralea said. “There is no question about this. We have to cover extra units frequently. When someone is out sick or on vacation, there is no one to cover. Nurses are often mandated to work extra shifts. This is not just a physically demanding job, it’s mentally demanding and people are burnt out.”

The unions, including the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199 SEIU, CSEA, CEUI,  and AFSCME, held a news conference Wednesday outside the Middletown facility to call attention to the staffing issues. They want the state to provide health care workers with pay and benefits comparable to the private sector so DHMAS can attract and retain professionals who are experienced dealing with patients at CVH.

DMHAS is filling the positions as quickly as possible while still providing quality care, said Art Mongillo, a spokesman for the agency. “Despite these vacancies, our rate of onboarding staff is higher than it has been in the past. DMHAS is actively recruiting to fill staff vacancies and remains committed to meeting the needs of the behavioral health community,” Mongillo said.

But workers painted a different picture during the press conference. There are times when one nurse is responsible for 15 to 22 patients, making it impossible for that person to take a break or even leave the floor without compromising everyone’s safety, said Kim Michalsky, a supervising nurse at CVH.

Her mother and grandmother both worked as nurses at the facility, Michalski said. She knew what she was getting into in terms of missed holidays and family functions, she said. “But I didn’t anticipate that I wouldn’t be able to keep my staff or my patients safe,” Michalsky said.

Overall, DHMAS is down more than 700 medical professionals, including psychiatrists, physicians, nurses and mental health assistants who work directly with patients, union officials said. They say the agency has only brought 29 new hires on board since the start of 2021. It has lost about 20 psychiatrists in the past year but only hired one replacement, said Kim Piper, vice president of 1199.

Next year, about 25%, or 493, DHMAS employees will be eligible for retirement, union officials said.

The problem is that the salaries and benefits offered by the agency are not comparable to the private sector so it’s nearly impossible to fill positions and retain staff, Piper said.

The Bridgeport mental health center is down about eight psychiatrists and addiction treatment bed space is at a premium, workers said.

“State services are where everyone from all walks of life come for care,” Piper said. “There’s been a mental health crisis during the pandemic and fatal overdoses are up but there aren’t enough services to keep up with the times.”

Staff at CVH say that since 2020 they have seen about a 70% reduction in the number of beds available to treat people with addiction. At the same time, the state experienced a 14% increase in the number of people who died from accidental drug overdoses.

While initially, the use of the beds was curtailed to allow social distancing during the pandemic, Dr. Pralea said many are still closed because so many staff members have left that there is no one to staff the units. “We’d like to go back to what we had, which is about 110 beds, but we need more staff,” the physician said.

A spokesman for Gov. Ned Lamont said Wednesday they will work with the agency and the union to get the vacant positions filled.

“We remain committed to working with DMHAS and care providers throughout the state to ensure all of our residents have quality care,” Max Reiss said. “In addition to filling these roles quickly, that also means continuing to work collaboratively with our partners in organized labor to modernize state government by eliminating bureaucratic and outdated hiring processes. We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can to recruit the best talent to support our state.”