For nearly two years, WRAL Investigates has been paying for mental health damages caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The bottom line is: At a time when more people need help than ever before, the state simply doesn’t have enough therapists and counselors to meet the need.
As WRAL Investigators found, it includes state taxpayer-funded mental health hospitals, where staff say staff shortages are lowering morale and increasing risk. .
Faizon Cutler works at the state-run Central Regional Hospital in Butner, North Carolina, north of Raleigh.
“It leaves the door wide open for unpredictable behavior, unpredictable tasks,” says Cutler.
The mental health consultant says staff shortages due to low wages, low morale and a lack of leadership are causing staff failure and impacting patient care.
“Employees are injured, engage in aggressive behaviors, and cannot incarcerate or reduce those behaviors,” Cutler said of the daily struggles.
Cutler feels that without the proper support staff, smaller-than-normal incidents that can be handled peacefully can quickly get out of hand.
The Central region has 1,437 employees, but there are 449 vacancies, accounting for nearly 25%. Cutler said staffing shortages played a role in an attack on him and his colleagues in June.
“The patient started calling our names,” Cutler said, “I got shot in the chest and hit my back twice.
“Whoever she saw her way, she put her hand towards them and she did the same… I had a knee injury, I had my lip cut… Two colleagues of I was injured, two nurses were attacked. One of them is still outside.”
Cutler and other workers are represented by UE Local 150, a union that sheds light on issues at the hospital, including employee assault and underpayment. The workers also said contractors are used to fill the vacancies. Contractors earn more than full-time, long-term employees, and in many cases, Cutler said, those workers quit before their contracts expire.
“Staff and workforce on what I consider a care workforce is a priority for the department and a huge issue at our state’s facilities,” said the Minister of Health and Epidemiology. North Carolina Human Services Kody Kinsley told WRAL Investigates.
Kinsley worries not only about the 25% vacancy rate, but also the revenue that means nearly half of all employees leave their state health jobs each year.
“We are losing employees to other jobs where they can earn more in the market,” Kinsley said.
Staffing issues affect patient care and access to mental health care when demand is at an all-time high. In July, there were 257 patients in the central region, the maximum the hospital can handle based on payroll. This is down from 367 patients in July 2019. When fully staffed, the hospital can handle nearly 400 patients, more than any other state facility.
Kinsley told WRAL Investigates he’s well aware of the need for help.
“I think every North Carolinian knows that we are in a place where there is a real mental health crisis,” Kinsley said.
Due to the lack of staff, many patients are waiting at the emergency rooms of local hospitals because beds cannot be arranged at the central hospital.
Last month, there were 68 patients on the Center’s waiting list. On average, it took 296 hours to acknowledge them, which is more than 12 days.
The two other state facilities also have waiting lists. Broughton, in the mountains, has 15 patients waiting an average of 127 hours. Cherry Hospital in Wayne County had 87 patients waiting approximately 156 hours to be admitted.
Kinsley said losing up to $500 million a month in existing Medicaid funding remains a major reason.
“Without expanding Medicaid over the course of a decade, that has had a huge impact on our healthcare workforce, and we need to start changing that tide,” Kinsley said. What matters is our employees and the work they do for the people they serve. “
For workers like Cutler, he wants them to be more appreciated by regulators and legislators.
“Patient care and staff care should have a degree,” he said.
Cutler wants legislators to understand the shortfalls and, therefore, provide more funding to hire new and retain existing workers, so that those in need of mental health care can get there. He said the money would also protect those providing care.
“There are employees who have had their hair pulled, like it’s been pulled from their roots,” Cutler said.
WRAL investigators asked state health leaders for data on the number of physical confrontations in which staff or patients were injured to see if trends have increased since the pandemic. start or not. Citing privacy laws, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services declined to provide that information to WRAL Investigates.