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Safety at state mental hospitals is focus of hearing

August 23, 2011 | 11:12 am

Napa State Hospital workers demonstrate for safer conditions after Donna Gross, a psych tech there, was killed by a patient. 
Assemblyman Michael Allen (D-Santa Rosa) will lead a hearing Tuesday afternoon in Sacramento on safety in the state's mental hospital system.

The first hearing by the Select Committee on State Hospital Safety comes 10 months to the day after a psychiatric technician was slain at Napa State Hospital, lifting a veil on violent conditions for patients and staff at the facilities statewide.

Although the federal government ordered reforms in 2006 to improve conditions in California hospitals, many of the facilities -- in Napa, Coalinga, Norwalk, San Bernardino and Atascadero -- have since experienced a rise in violence.

About 92% of the hospital population has been accused or convicted of committing a crime as a result of their mental illness. Some commit violent acts because of predatory sociopathic tendencies, others because of psychosis triggered by severe mental illness such as schizophrenia. Many are not assaultive but become victims of aggression.

Allen, the select committee's chairman, is a former psychiatric nurse. The first-term lawmaker recently shadowed workers at some of Napa State Hospital's most dangerous units to better understand  conditions.

California Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley lifted a hiring freeze at the state facilities earlier this year because of safety concerns, but a number of budgeted positions for hospital police officers have yet to be filled. Funding for an alarm system for the grounds of Napa's aging facility, meanwhile, has been approved but the system is not yet installed.

The state's financial crisis makes the prospect of costly solutions unlikely. But Allen said in a statement that the committee had been looking into transferring certain types of patients out of the hospitals and pressing for more effective treatment that could reduce patient's length of stay -- innovations that could create cost savings to pay for safety improvements.

The committee has also been investigating the steep cost of workers' compensation claims to argue for the long-term savings of a safer environment. Clinicians and unit floor staff from across the system are expected to testify at Tuesday's hearing, along with top Department of Mental Health officials, Cal/OSHA representatives and the head of the California Office of Patients' Rights, which advocates on behalf of the system's more than 5,000 patients.

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-- Lee Romney in Sacramento

Photo: State hospital workers stage a demonstration calling for safer conditions. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times

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