New Oregon State Hospital leader is eager to take over

From the Salem Statesman Journal, August 9, 2010

Greg Roberts (middle) speaks to the Assembly Human Service committee at Ancora Mental Hospital on Aug. 28, 2008.

Greg Roberts (middle) speaks to the Assembly Human Service committee at Ancora Mental Hospital on Aug. 28, 2008.

Oregon State Hospital’s incoming leader says he wants to do away with mandatory employee overtime and reduce the patient population at the overcrowded, understaffed psychiatric facility in Salem.

“I can tell you that in New Jersey, we have pretty much eliminated the use of mandatory overtime,” Greg Roberts said. “It’s a pretty rare occasion here.”

Roberts, 59, currently is director of the Office of State Hospital Management in New Jersey. He was named OSH superintendent on Wednesday, and he is scheduled to start working at the state hospital here Sept. 20.

In two telephone interviews with the Statesman Journal, Roberts said he’s eager to tackle the OSH job. He seemed unfazed by press coverage he has read about an ongoing four-year federal investigation of Oregon’s main mental hospital and by reports critical of patient care and hospital conditions.

“I have to tell you, it’s all very familiar territory,” he said. “We’ve had many of the same issues in the New Jersey hospital system over the years.”

Curtailing mandatory overtime at the 127-year-old Salem institution is “absolutely” one of his goals, Roberts said.

Earlier this year, mandatory overtime soared to record levels at OSH, prompting an outpouring of employee frustration and rage. In April, workers staged a rally on the hospital grounds to protest mandatory overtime and sluggish hiring of new front-line staffers.

Forced overtime has declined recently at OSH after the hiring of about 50 front-line staffers. Even so, required double shifts remain a sore point for many employees.

Roberts said he hopes to further ease the burdens on workers by making adjustments to staffing patterns.

Unlike Oregon lawmakers, New Jersey legislators have taken action to curb mandatory overtime at the state’s psychiatric hospitals. Legislation passed a few years ago prohibited mandatory overtime, except under certain circumstances.

“Here, if someone ends up being mandated for overtime, there’s a pretty detailed sheet that is legally required to be completed in explaining why somebody was mandated,” Roberts said.

Rare stints of mandated overtime tend to be brief at the New Jersey psychiatric facilities, Roberts said. “We’re talking about 15- or 20-minute periods, not 8-hour periods, and we’re certainly not talking about this every day of the week.”

Roberts said he wants to examine Oregon State Hospital’s overcrowding issues before deciding how to address them.

Clearly, though, solving chronic overcrowding is essential, he said.

“Overcrowding is the root of all evil in a state psychiatric hospital,” he said.

Also critical for turning around a troubled hospital is having a solid community-based mental-health system, which provides safe housing, outpatient treatment, job training and other supports for former patients.

Career path forged in ’60s

Roberts began working with the New Jersey Department of Human Services in 1973, shortly after he received his master’s degree in social work from Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey.

Roberts traced the underlying motivation of his career path to the spirit of “great social change” and “social responsibility” that existed in the 1960s — “the John F. Kennedy and the Bobby Kennedy era when there was a real sense that you wanted your life to be something that made a positive difference in other people’s lives and contribute to making the world a better place.”

Roberts has spent his entire 37-year professional career in New Jersey, including stints as chief executive officer at five state psychiatric hospitals.

During his long career, he never doubted that he pursued the right line of work.

“I have never once, not for a single moment, thought maybe I should have chosen some other profession,” he said. “It just always felt like the perfect fit to me.”

Asked whether “reformer” is an accurate way to sum up his work, Roberts said: “Throughout my career, especially in mental health, I’m the person often sent in to the most problematic facility. So I certainly have a track record across five hospitals of taking some very bad situations and turning them into positive situations. I don’t know if that quite fits the definition of reformer, but I have that record of stabilizing some pretty bad situations and moving them forward.”

In his current position, Roberts oversees four adult state-run psychiatric facilities. Two of them — Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital and Ancora Psychiatric Hospital — have checkered histories, littered with critical reports about subpar patient care within packed facilities.

In 2000, New Jersey’s governor recommended that Greystone be “closed or dramatically reconfigured.” In July of that year, Roberts was named CEO of the facility and led a three-year effort to improve patient care. Closure of the facility was averted, and a new state-of-the-art psychiatric facility was built to replace the obsolete hospital.

In 2007, Roberts, while continuing to serve as the director of the Office of Hospital Management, stepped in to provide temporary leadership at the Ancora hospital after a series of well-publicized patient deaths and injuries riveted attention on the facility.

As with the Oregon State Hospital, the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division has investigated Ancora and found sweeping flaws.

In August 2009, federal investigators issued a report asserting that Ancora’s patients live in unsafe conditions and do “not receive appropriate treatment and rehabilitation.”

The conclusions of that report mirrored U.S. DOJ’s scathing assessment of Oregon State Hospital, as outlined in a report issued in January 2008.

“If you went to DOJ’s Web site and pulled up their report and put it side by side with Oregon State Hospital, it’s nearly exactly the same report,” Roberts said.

Reform-minded efforts at Ancora began with concerted efforts to ease severe overcrowding.

Roberts said Ancora remains “a work in progress” today. But the troubled hospital has made a lot of progress, he said.

“If you look at Ancora of 2010 and compare it to Ancora of 2007, there is absolutely no question that it’s a much better hospital,” Roberts said.

Praise and criticism

Phil Lubitz, associate director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of New Jersey, credited Roberts with providing key leadership that paved the way for reforms at Greystone and Ancora.

He said Robert’s experience in turning around troubled institutions appears to make him a good fit to lead Oregon State Hospital.

“Thinking of Greg’s career, he is a guy who seems to relish challenges,” Lubitz said. “He has sort of specialized in stepping in and turning around underperforming hospitals here. So I can see that with what Oregon is experiencing, he could see that as another challenge and a good way to round out his career.”

When asked to pinpoint Robert’s biggest weakness, Lubitz had a hard time citing any flaws.

“He’s a very positive sort of fellow and sometimes you wonder if there’s a little Pollyanna kind of quality to it,” he said. “But for the most part, he’s really been able to deliver.”

As Lubitz tells it, Roberts move to Oregon will be a big blow to New Jersey’s mental-health system.

“It’s going to be a great loss,” he said. “I don’t know of anyone in our system who is really ready to step in and fill his shoes.”

In sharp contrast, another mental-health advocate in New Jersey downplayed Robert’s departure, predicting that it won’t matter much because of what he described as the abysmal condition of the state’s mental-health system.

“The New Jersey mental-health system is the worst mental-health system I have ever encountered,” said Emmett Dwyer, litigation director of Disability Rights New Jersey, a federally financed organization that has sued the state several times to force hospital reforms. “I believe it is harmful to patients who have to go into the hospitals here.”

Last week, patient advocates filed a federal lawsuit charging that New Jersey psychiatric hospitals routinely medicate patients against their will without a review by an outside judge or review panel.

Twenty-nine states, including Oregon, require a judge’s ruling for involuntary medication, according to the suit.

“That’s only our most recent lawsuit,” Dwyer said. “We previously sued the mental-health system here in New Jersey because they had about 1,000 patients locked up in five state hospitals that didn’t need to be there any longer. That was a big lawsuit, and we just settled it last year and they agreed to move all these people out.”

Though Dwyer assailed New Jersey’s mental-health system, he stopped short of placing blame on Roberts.

“I don’t have anything bad to say about Greg Roberts. What I have to say is about the system here,” he said. “It’s a massive system. It’s an entrenched system. It’s rife with problems.”

How does Dwyer think Roberts will fare in Oregon?

“I can only assume things are more progressive in Oregon, or hope they are, and that Mr. Roberts has decided to go to a place where perhaps he can flourish,” he said. “I’m hoping that’s what he will do.”

In response to Dwyer’s harsh criticism of the New Jersey mental-health system, Roberts said: “I’m sorry Mr. Dwyer feels that way. But he’s certainly entitled to his opinion. I’ve been in this system a long time. And when I think back to what the state hospital environment used to be and the things we’re doing now, there’s absolutely no dispute that this is a much better system. How it compares to other states, I’m not in a position to say and Mr. Dwyer is. But I can tell you, we’re a much better system now than we were five, 10 or 15 years ago.”

Greg Roberts

Job: Director of the Office of State Hospital Management in New Jersey. Incoming superintendent of the Oregon State Hospital.
OSH annual salary: $236,640
Age: 59
Current residence: Burlington County, N.J.
Family: Married father of three children
Education: Sociology degree from the University of Scranton in 1972; master’s degree in social work from Rutgers University in 1973.
Hero: Robert Kennedy
Hobbies: Baseball fan, works on stained-glass projects, plans to take up fly fishing.
Quote: “If you want a quote that I’ve used a number of times: Overcrowding is the root of all evil in a state psychiatric hospital.”