On Wednesday the Department of Mental Health (DMH) informed workers that it intends to reduce the ratio of treatment staff to patients by almost a third within all five of its hospitals starting next month. The notice sent to UAPD states that DMH is “evolving into a new Department focusing on improved care, patient and staff safety, and fiscal responsibility.” UAPD President Dr. Stuart A. Bussey called that statement, “pie in the sky.” “It is clear that only short-term monetary goals are driving the State’s decision to cut staff,” he told the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press. “We know that if treatment staff are cut, patient safety will certainly deteriorate further.” Dr. Bussey and other UAPD leaders are scheduled to meet with the Governor and his top aids on December 21st to discuss alternatives to these cuts.
Despite a year-long campaign on the part of DMH workers, DMH has done little to improve patient and staff safety in the state’s five mental health hospitals. DMH’s announcement that it plans to cut the treatment staff comes less than a week after the U.S. Department of Justice asked a judge to extend federal oversight of both Napa and Metropolitan State Hospitals, because in its view DMH has not achieved basic safety and treatment standards there. The Department of Justice wrote that regarding safety, DMH has “failed to implement necessary corrective mechanisms that they have identified, such as a campus-wide alarm system and a unit with enhanced staffing and other protections to house particularly violent persons.” Safety Now! has been calling for these and other measures for more than a year.
With an eye towards true fiscal responsibility, the Safety Now! Coalition is surveying thousands of DMH workers, asking them to identify opportunities for cost-savings that will not jeopardize patient and staff safety. The Coalition’s proposals include: DMH raising an additional $88 million per year by appropriately charging for civil commitment beds at Napa and Metropolitan; DMH saving $7 million per year by replacing contracted psychiatrists with civil service psychiatrists at Atascadero; and DMH saving $1 million per year by cancelling Napa’s contract with UC Davis, through which the medical school is paid to train its own students, often at outside clinics.