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Group Vows To Improve Conditions At Osawatomie State Hospital

Kansas Sen. Molly Baumgardner thought it’d be great if a dozen — maybe two dozen — people showed up for a town hall meeting she’d convened in Osawatomie to talk about conditions at the state mental health hospital.

“There’s a lot of fear and anxiety, I know,” she said. “People are afraid they’ll lose their jobs if they say anything.”

So it was “wonderful,” Baumgardner said, when nearly 100 people — current and former hospital employees, mostly — turned out for the 90-minute discussion Monday evening in Memorial Hall near the city’s historic John Brown Memorial Park.

“It shows we have some really good people who really care about what’s going on out there,” she said. “And the message, I think, was pretty clear: We need to do something about it; we need information. This won’t be our last meeting. I guarantee you that.”

Baumgardner, a Republican from Louisburg, organized the meeting after state and federal surveyors twice in a span of four and a half months cited the 206-bed hospital for being overcrowded, providing poor care and not doing enough to prevent suicidal patients from harming themselves.

The findings, she said, had in recent weeks fueled long-festering rumors that state officials wanted to close the Osawatomie facility for Kansans with severe and persistent mental illnesses. The state’s other hospital for mental health patients is in Larned.

Baumgardner asked Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services Secretary Kari Bruffett to respond to the rumors.

“There are no plans to close Osawatomie State Hospital,” Bruffett said.

Later asked if KDADS intended to privatize some of the hospital’s services, Bruffett said that was “absolutely not the case.” But she added that the concept of privatization shouldn’t be “taken off the table” if it could improve patient care.

“Our No. 1 goal is to ensure that patients get the best care,” she said.

Bruffett, KDADS Superintendent of State Hospitals Bill Rein and Osawatomie State Hospital Superintendent Jerry Rea asked the audience for help in the agency’s efforts to recruit, hire and retain additional staff.

Their request prompted many in the audience to remind KDADS officials that working conditions at the hospital have been in decline for several years.

Among their concerns:

  • Nurses and direct care staff often are, without warning, required to work one, two and three overtime shifts per week.
  • State employee wages have been flat for several years, so experienced direct care workers now earn about 40 cents an hour more than inexperienced employees.
  • Employees often feel left out of the hospital’s decision-making processes.
  • Many “really good” employees have been fired or reprimanded for objecting to policies they thought were detrimental to patient care.
  • New employees are poorly trained.
  • There’s little communication between the hospital’s front office and its nurse’s stations.

“If you had happy nurses, you wouldn’t have the problems you’re having now,” said Edwina Bastion, a now-retired nurse who worked at the hospital for 41 years. “They don’t feel like they’re communicated with.” Her comment prompted a round of applause.

Rea, Rein and Bruffett each said they were aware of audience members’ concerns and that they were doing what they could to improve conditions.

But Stephen Feinstein, a former superintendent at the state hospital and a past president of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said if that were the case, KDADS would have a plan in place that clearly defines the role of the state hospitals. Such a plan, he said, doesn’t exist.

“We continue to manage by crisis,” he said. “So two years from now, we’ll be in here talking about the next crisis and how we’re going to fix it.”

A nurse who did not identify herself warned Bruffett, Rein and Rea that expecting her and her co-workers to work two 16-hour shifts in a span of two days had created “a potential disaster here.”

“That’s not good for you,” Bruffett said, referring to the overtime demands. “It’s not good for the hospital, and it cannot be sustained.”

Rein asked the group to understand that much of the demand for overtime was driven by the recent surveys requiring the hospital to conduct more in-person safety checks on patients than in the past.

Finding new ways to recruit, hire and retain workers, he said, should reduce the hospital’s overtime demands.

Rea confirmed that, currently, the hospital is without an on-campus director of nursing. The position, he said, is temporarily being filled by the director of nursing at Parsons State Hospital and Training Center.

“We are trying to fill the (Osawatomie) position now,” Rea said.

The meeting ended with Bruffett agreeing to keep the Baumgardner-led group abreast of KDADS efforts to reduce overtime, enhance training, improve communication and measure the effectiveness of the hospital’s programs.

Also in attendance were Sen. Caryn Tyson, a Republican from Parker whose district includes Osawatomie State Hospital, and Rep. Kevin Jones of Wellsville and Rep. Jene Vickrey of Louisburg, both Republicans.

“We really need to concentrate on creating a work environment that’s rewarding to staff, because it’s the employees that make up the heart and soul of the hospital,” Vickrey said after the meeting. “If we don’t treat them well, we aren’t going to deliver the care that’s so vital to people in the 46 counties who depend on this state hospital.”

Mark Ready, a nurse who worked at the hospital for 38 years before retiring four years ago, said he welcomed that group’s message but doubted its direction.

“Most of what I heard tonight was ‘recruit, recruit, recruit,’” he said. “And that’s fine, they can do that all you want. … I don’t think you’re going to get more people to work out there until you make it a better place to work.”

Dave Ranney is a reporter for KHI News Service in Topeka, a partner in the Heartland Health Monitor team.

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