Oregon State Hospital cuts keep front-line hires intact, freezes hiring adminstrative

From the Salem Statesman Journal, June 10, 2010

Richard Harris

Richard Harris

A $4.8 million package of proposed budget cuts at the Oregon State Hospital includes a freeze on hiring administrators and a delay in hiring of staff for the second phase of hospital replacement project.

But the understaffed and overcrowded psychiatric facility in Salem is moving forward with fast-track hiring of front-line staffers, Richard Harris, director of the state Addictions and Mental Health Division, said Thursday.

“We’ve exempted them from any of the hiring freeze and any of the reductions,” he said.

The hospital budget cuts were carefully fashioned, he said, to avoid harmful effects on patients and existing front-line staffers.

“We sort of divided this into a freeze on administrative positions, a continued aggressive hiring process for the direct care staff, and a slow down of hiring of the anticipated staff for the Phase 2 start up,” he said.

“For me, the mandatory overtime issue remains the No. 1 priority to be dealt with. It’s absolutely imperative that we bring more people on.”

Harris recently set a goal for the hospital to hire 60 front-line staffers by this summer. The accelerated hiring effort is aimed at reducing the hospital’s growing reliance on forced overtime to run the facility, plus easing the burdens on frustrated and frazzled direct-care staffers who frequently receive marching orders to pull double shifts.

This week, OSH took a big step toward meeting the 60-person hiring goal by extending employment offers to 28 potential front-line staffers, Harris said.

“We’ll end up with a yield that is lower than 28 but my hope is we end up with at least 20 out of this, so we’re about a third of the way there,” he said.

Proposed budget cuts at OSH come in response to Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s order that state agencies slice 9 percent from the final 12 months of their 2009-11 budgets. The cuts are designed to compensate for a big shortfall in tax collections triggered by the recession.

Planned OSH cuts totaling nearly $5 million are well below the 9 percent benchmark established by the governor, Harris said. Spending reductions range from $100,000 per month cutbacks in supplies and services to delayed hiring next year of new hospital employees.

State budget cuts are occurring as the state is building a new $280 million 620-bed hospital to replace the existing 127-year-old institution, which was declared obsolete and unsafe by state-hired consultants five years ago.

The first patient-occupied sections of the new hospital are scheduled to open late this year, and the facility is projected to become fully operational late next year.

Last year, state lawmakers boosted the hospital’s two-year budget for 2009-11 to $324 million, a 31 percent increase that provided funding to hire 527 new employees.

As a cost-containment measure, the massive staffing expansion was set up to occur in waves of hiring, timed to coincide with the phased opening of new facilities.

The looming budget cuts will delay the hiring of workers slated to be hired next year during Phase 2 opening of the new hospital.

To save money, new employees will be hired two months before patients move into Phase 2 portions of the new hospital, around next May. Those workers previously had been slated to come on board four to five months prior to patient occupancy of that part of the facility.

Despite the proposed freeze on administrative hiring, the hospital will proceed with recruitment of a new superintendent, Harris said.

It is “absolutely vital that we fill that position,” he said.

More than 30 applicants have applied for the hospital leadership post. Plans call for filling the position by early August. Former OSH Superintendent Roy Orr, who was ousted by Harris April 2, was paid about $232,000 per year.

Harris said it was hard to say how federal investigators might react to budget cuts at the hospital. The U.S. Department of Justice has been a harsh critic of understaffing, patient care and hospital conditions.

“My own estimate is, I don’t think it changes much of the equation,” he said. “But if we’re blunt about it, everything we do at the hospital is under the scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Justice, and I don’t know what there reaction is going to be when they see we’re making budget reductions at the hospital.”