The well-documented problems in North Carolina's mental health care system did not begin with Gov. Mike Easley – and given how resistant they have been to quick fixes, won't end there, either.
But with a badly botched mental health decentralization plan that occurred on the governor's watch during his first term and two state mental hospitals losing their certification for federal insurance payments in the last couple of years, the mental health mess may become what most folks remember about the Easley administration.
That may not be fair, given Gov. Easley's designation of a tough civic administrator, former Raleigh city manager Dempsey Benton, to put a halt to the confusion, reorganize management and put in place a plan to fix what's wrong. Broughton Hospital in Morganton has regained its federal certification, reversing the loss of about $1 million a month in federal insurance payments for patients at the western hospital. It earlier had been decertified over unsafe conditions. In August it lost its accreditation for private insurance purposes, too.
For months the department has been working to address problems related to unsafe conditions at Cherry Hospital, the state's eastern mental health facility in Goldsboro. The Department of Health and Human Resources announced Thursday that it has lost its federal certification, which means the loss of about $800,000 a month in federal insurance payments. Though the state was able to cover the loss of federal insurance while Broughton was without certification, state money may not be available to cover the Cherry payments.
Cherry Hospital lost its certification over a number of safety issues, including the beating of patients and intimidation of witnesses by hospital staff. In one horrifying incident, staffers ignored a patient, Steven Sabock, while he was sitting in a chair without food for more than 22 hours.
It's not that staff was busy with other needy patients, an investigation reported. Instead, staffers were watching TV and playing cards. Doctors were not notified when Mr. Sabock fell and hurt his head after choking, despite warnings that his vital signs should be checked regularly. Mr. Sabock died of a heart condition.
The state has contracted with a hospital management company to evaluate its operations and make recommendations for correcting them. That's overdue. But the alarming safety violations and patient beatings beg for creation of an independent watchdog office that will act forcefully and quickly as a patient advocate. When hospital patients are beaten or ignored and otherwise poorly treated, it's a sign that something is deadly wrong.
The mental health system is among the most difficult parts of state government to manage effectively, in part because patients have so many varied needs. But just as society is judged by how it treats the least of its people, so will this administration be judged on how it resolves the plight of people least able to care for themselves.