Lawmakers plan hearings on spike in assaults at psychiatric hospital

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun

State lawmakers said Tuesday that they will hold hearings to investigate the spike in assaults on staff members at the state’s largest psychiatric hospital, after The Baltimore Sun detailed the increase.

The Sun showed that assaults on staff at Spring Grove Hospital Center in Catonsville nearly doubled from the last six months of 2016 to the first six months of 2017. The state is under a court order to hire more staff for the facility by the end of the year.

“It’s terrible,” said Del. Shane Pendergrass, the Howard County Democrat who chairs the House Health and Government Operations Committee. “I have to think about the people who work there, and who would want a job where you’re going to get assaulted?”

Pendergrass said she asked the Senate Finance Committee to join the inquiry into the facility.

Finance Committee Chairman Thomas “Mac” Middleton said he has so many concerns about the state's ability to treat mental health patients that he wants his own briefing from state health officials.

"What are they going to do about this?" said Middleton, a Charles County Democrat. "It is reaching a really, really chaotic situation right now. It needs to be addressed."

Pendergrass said lawmakers will also demand answers on why the state has failed to provide treatment for all the mental health patients referred by the criminal justice system — patients that are instead languishing in jails for months at a time.

A Baltimore judge held five top Maryland officials in contempt of court last month for failing to address that problem more quickly.

“We had thought things were moving forward. We thought there was a plan in place, and it is disheartening to see that we are not moving forward,” Pendergrass said. “We are moving backward.”

Middleton added "We have a crisis of proportions now."

The Sun found that assaults on workers at Spring Grove jumped from 35 during the last six months of 2016 to 68 in the first six months of this year. That was the highest number for any six-month period going back to July 2014.

Assaults by patients at other state psychiatric hospitals declined.

State health officials dismissed the spike at Spring Grove as a “blip” in the data. Health Secretary Dennis Schrader, one of the officials held in contempt last month by Judge Gale Rasin, said Tuesday that officials welcomed the opportunity to explain themselves.

“I was hoping this would happen,” he said.

Schrader said state health officials haven’t had an appropriate opportunity to explain the progress they’ve made. “We’re excited about the hearings,” he said.

John Robison, chief of psychiatric hospitals for the Maryland Department of Health, said he planned to tell lawmakers that assaults on workers have nothing to do with staffing levels.

If he were able to request more resources for his system, he said, he’d ask to refurbish all the patient units before he asked for more staff.

“The concept that more staffs lead to less assaults is false,” Robison said. “The notion that there’s an assault problem or spike at Spring Grove is a very narrow look at a single data point.”

Rasin said the Health Department had “failed miserably to meet its responsibility,” to care for patients referred by the courts. She called Spring Grove “a hospital that is being deprived of resources and one that cannot meet its obligations.”

Rasin gave Schrader a Dec. 31 deadline to hire staff for 20 beds that were recently added to Clifton T. Perkins Hospital Center in Jessup and staff for 20 new beds at Spring Grove.

The state is appealing that decision.

Schrader said Tuesday that he was going to follow his agency’s plan to add nearly 100 beds and staff to serve them at several hospitals across the state. According to the plan he described, staff to serve 32 new beds will be ready by the end of the year.

State lawmakers have long been concerned about assaults at state facilities. After Gov. Larry Hogan proposed his budget this year, legislative budget analysts recommended that policymakers press the administration on “how the department intends to improve security staffing levels without the addition of positions for this purpose.”

Some lawmakers said the nature of work at state psychiatric hospitals has drastically changed as fewer people are committed voluntarily and more are referred by the criminal justice system. At Spring Grove, 80 percent of patients have been referred from the courts.

Del. Erek L. Barron, who serves on the House subcommittee that oversees psychiatric hospitals, said he plans to press the administration on why it is not proposing to spend more on this problem. The Prince George’s County Democrat said current conditions put health workers at risk while denying treatment to people with mental health problems.

“We gradually have turned poverty and mental health into a criminal offense,” Barron said. “The department and the administration are not putting in the funds and requesting the necessary resources.”

Schrader and Robison disputed whether the increase in assaults at Spring Grove was outside the industry standard for such facilities. But they agreed that it would be better to have fewer attacks. They did not identify which resources they thought the system needed to reduce them.

Robison said many factors — the type of patient, the environmental conditions at the facility and the training of the staff — play a larger role in the frequency of assaults than the number of workers employed at a site.

Schrader said he was reviewing all the construction needs for the entire hospital system and is in the process of developing a proposal to upgrade facilities.

ecox@baltsun.com

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