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Hearing on safety issues at mental hospitals set for Tuesday

August 22, 2011 |  6:26 pm

Photo: Assemblyman Michael Allen (D-Santa Rosa). Credit: assembly.ca.gov Assemblyman Michael Allen (D-Santa Rosa) will chair a long-awaited hearing Tuesday on safety issues in the state's mental hospital system.

The first hearing by the Select Committee on State Hospital Safety, to be held in the Capitol from 2 to 4 p.m., comes 10 months after a psychiatric technician was slain at Napa State Hospital, lifting a veil on violent conditions for patients and staff at the facilities statewide.

Allen, a former psychiatric nurse and first-term lawmaker, has taken a strong interest in the system, shadowing workers recently on some of Napa State Hospital's most dangerous units to better understand conditions and hosting a forum in January with state Sen. Noreen Evans (D-Santa Rosa) to hear hundreds of employees air concerns about increasingly violent conditions.

About 92% of the hospital population has been accused or convicted of committing a crime as a result of their mental illness. Some commit violence 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 regular aggression.

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

Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley lifted a hiring freeze for the hospitals earlier this year because of safety concerns, but progress has been slow. A number of positions for hospital police officers have been budgeted but not yet filled. 

Funding for an alarm system for the grounds of Napa's aging facility, meanwhile, has been approved but 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 has been exploring transferring certain types of patients out of the hospitals and pressing for more effective treatment that could reduce 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, the chief of Cal/OSHA, and the head of the California Office of Patients' Rights, which advocates on behalf of the system's more than 5,000 patients. The committee will also hear public testimony.

In addition to Allen, committee members include the following Assembly members: Katcho Achadjian (R-San Luis Obispo),  Luis Alejo (D-Salinas), Tim Donnelly (R-Twin Peaks), Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia), Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) and Mariko Yamada (D-Davis).


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Photo: Assemblyman Michael Allen (D-Santa Rosa). Credit: assembly.ca.gov