Lawmakers propose fix for dangerous state hospitals
ST. PAUL — Money is needed to end an epidemic of injuries being suffered in two state-run hospitals and Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton puts the figure at $177 million.
“We are walking around wounded and feel like punching bags,” said Jackie Spanjers, a nurse at the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center.
Spanjers and two workers at the State Security Hospital in St. Peter joined Dayton, his human services commissioner and Sen. Kathy Sheran, D-Mankato, Wednesday to discuss what they call an urgent need to improve training, hire more people and add beds to the facilities. They said that patients and staff members face an increasing amount of danger.
“For years, they have suffered from neglect and underfunding,” Dayton said of the two hospitals.
A 2014 patient death at the hands of another mentally ill patient drew headlines about the St. Peter facility, but dozens of staff injuries a year are less noticed by the public.
The death came a year after state law began to require county jails to ship out within 48 hours inmates who need mental health care. Officials blame the 48-hour rule for driving up attacks as too many are being placed in the hospitals too quickly.
At St. Peter, attacks are not new, but they are increasing. Other programs than the Security Hospital also operate on campus.
In 2011, St. Peter reported 78 assaults, according data provided by the Department of Human Services. Last year, it reported 173.
Fifty-five injuries were reported in the Anoka facility last year, Spanjers said, compared to 2013’s 38 injuries.
“Those injuries are traumatic both physically and psychologically,” she said. “Anoka has become a dangerous place for us to work. ... We don’t have the training or the tools to handle the violent offenders.”
While nurses and other staffers like dealing with the patients, Spanjers said, they “kick, bite and choke us. They spit on us. ... They yank our hair and throw things at us.”
Spanjers said she has been injured, including a torn rotator cuff when a patient threw her against a counter corner.
Anne Mehltretter, a St. Peter nurse, said that in addition to problems with patients, “we are just short nurses.” Those on the staff, she added, “know they will work multiple overtime shifts a week.”
Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper said that a combination of factors make it tough to hire and retain nurses, not the least of which is dealing with violent patients. With vacant jobs in the past year, the state saved some money that allowed her department to offer incentives to nurses, which resulted in more being hired in Anoka earlier this year.
“They are working in a very dangerous environment,” she added.
Tim Headlee, another St. Peter worker, said he and his colleagues need training on how to work with violent patients. “We need to learn how to communicate.”
Dayton’s $177 million program, which needs legislative approval, includes more training. It would renovate the two hospitals and allow more staff members to be hired. Part of the renovation would be making the buildings safer and more secure.
The governor’s plan also would increase spending for mental health facilities around the state as well as free up state hospital space for dangerous mentally ill patients who come from county jails.
“This is not a matter of choice,” Dayton said about that he proposes. “It is a matter of responsibility.”