5 Virginia mental health hospitals to hire contract staff amid worker shortage

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The Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services said it is bringing in contract staff at five state-run psychiatric hospitals where admissions were halted earlier this month amid a staffing crisis.

"Our focus right now is on building and retaining staff, providing relief staff, accelerating safe discharges and temporarily holding admissions until safe staff-to-patient ratios can be achieved in the state hospitals," the department said.

The department ordered the five facilities to halt admissions because of staffing and safety concerns. In a July 9 message, department commissioner Alison Land said she closed five of the eight state-run psychiatric hospitals — Central State Hospital in Petersburg; Western State Hospital in Staunton; Eastern State Hospital in Williamsburg; Piedmont Geriatric Hospital in Burkeville; and Catawba Hospital in Roanoke — to ensure patient safety. 

Staff vacancies at state hospitals have increased 50 percent, from more than 1,000 in April to more than 1,500 today, the department said in a statement shared with Becker's July 19. 

"The reality is that our state hospitals are frequently operating at or above 100 percent bed utilization, while we continue to be funded at 90 percent staffing. And several of our state hospitals are operating with direct care staffing levels as low as 63 percent with current vacancies. The high bed census is enough to create unsafe conditions for patients and staff. Factoring in the quickly worsening staffing situation, the situation in our state hospitals is simply untenable," the department wrote.  

The department said the pandemic worsened an already fragile staffing milieu, and there were 108 staff resignations at the five hospitals in the last two weeks.

"Exit interviews indicate a direct correlation with work hours mandated and lack of safety," the department said. "For years, we have tried cushioning staffing levels with international nurses, locum tenens, and other staffing contracts. Not only is this incredibly expensive — sometimes three times our regular staff salaries — but now the contract staff are increasingly not renewing or leaving before their contract is over."

To boost staffing, the department said it plans to use $25 million in fiscal year 2021 end-of-year non-general fund operating reserve funds to pay for initiation of a $14.6 million first-quarter fiscal year 2022 recruitment and retention bonus strategy as well as fund $10.4 million in emergency staffing contracts.

The department said it plans to reopen beds incrementally as staffing improves.  

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