“There was a crew who had their hair pulled out” :: WRAL.com

For nearly two years, WRAL Investigates has covered the mental health toll caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The bottom line is: At a time when more people need help than ever before, the state simply does not have enough therapists and counselors to meet the demand.

As WRAL Investigates has found, it includes taxpayer-funded mental health hospitals in the state, where staff say a shortage of workers lowers morale and increases risk.

Faison Cutler works at the state-run Central Regional Hospital in Patner, North Carolina, north of Raleigh.

“It leaves the door open for unexpected behavior, unexpected tasks,” Cutler said.

The mental health consultant said staffing shortages caused by low wages, low morale and a lack of leadership were weakening workers and affecting care provided to patients.

“Employees are subjected to abuse, aggressive behaviors, and an inability to hold or stop these behaviors,” Cutler said of the daily suffering.

Cutler feels that without the right support staff, small incidents that can be dealt with peacefully can quickly spiral out of control.

The central region has 1437 employees, but 449 vacancies, which is approximately 25% vacancy rate. Cutler said staffing shortages played a role in the attack on him and his co-workers in June.

“The patient started calling us names,” Cutler said. “I was hit in the chest and hit in the back twice.

“Anyone she saw on her way put her hands towards them and did just that… I bruised my knee, cut my lip… Two of my co-workers were injured, two nurses were attacked. One of them is still outside.”

Cutler and other workers are represented by UE Local 150, a union that highlights problems at the hospital, including employee abuse and low wages. Workers also said that contractors are being used to fill vacancies. Cutler said that contractors who make more money than full-time, long-term employees and in many cases, those workers leave before their contracts run out.

“Employment and the workforce across what I consider the caregiving workforce is a top priority for the department and it is a huge issue in our state facilities,” North Carolina Secretary of Health and Human Services Cody Kinsley told WRAL Investigates.

Kinsley worries not only about a 25% vacancy rate, but about a turnover rate that means nearly half of employees leave their health jobs in the state each year.

“We are losing employees to other jobs where they can get a lot in the market,” Kinsley said.

Staffing issues affect patient care and access to mental health care when the need is highest. Last July, there were 257 patients in the central region, which is the maximum a hospital can handle based on the number of staff. That’s down from 367 patients in July 2019. When staffing is complete, the hospital can handle nearly 400 patients, more than any of the other state-run facilities.

Kinsley told WRAL Investigates he is well aware of the need for help.

“I think every North Carolina citizen knows we’re in a place with a real mental health crisis,” Kinsley said.

As a result of staff shortages, many patients are waiting in emergency rooms of local hospitals because the beds in Central cannot be staffed.

Last month, there were 68 patients on Central’s waiting list. On average, it took 296 hours for them to be accepted, which is more than 12 days.

The other two facilities in the state also have waiting lists. Proton in the mountains 15 patients wait 127 hours on average. Cherry Hospital in Wayne County has 87 patients waiting about 156 hours to be admitted.

Kinsley said the loss of up to $500 million a month in available Medicaid funding remains a major cause.

“After not expanding Medicaid now for a decade, it has had a huge impact on our healthcare workforce, and we need to start turning that tide,” Kinsley said. The important thing is our people and the work they do for the people they serve.”

For workers like Cutler, he wishes management and lawmakers would be held in greater esteem.

“Patient and staff care must be at a level,” he said.

Cutler wants lawmakers to understand the shortcomings and in turn provide more funding to hire and retain new workers, so that those who need mental health care can get it. He said that money will also protect those who give to you.

“There were employees who had their hair pulled out, like they were literally pulled out at their roots,” Cutler said. “I assure you, this won’t be the last incident when so many workers get hurt.”

WRAL Investigates asked state health leaders for data on the number of physical encounters where employees or patients have been infected to see if trends have been increasing since the pandemic began. Citing confidentiality laws, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services declined to provide this information to WRAL investigators.

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