- Associated Press - Monday, June 12, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia’s public mental hospitals are continuing to struggle with high employee turnover rates and have turned to hiring nurses from other countries to fill vacancies at some locations, a top state official told lawmakers Monday.

Hospital staffing vacancy rates in April were as high as 60 percent among direct care registered nurses at the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents in Staunton, said Dr. Jack Barber, interim commissioner of the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities. At Piedmont Geriatric Hospital in Burkeville, they were 46 percent.

In addition, the hospitals are consistently near capacity - at 95 percent on Monday and as high as 99 percent recently - Barber said.

“That’s a risk to the individuals and the staff who work there. … It’s something to worry about every day,” he told members of a panel of lawmakers studying the state’s mental health care system and ways to improve it.

Lawmakers in the Republican-controlled General Assembly included 3 percent across-the-board raises for state employees in the budget they passed this year. They also included another 2 percent raise for certain categories of high-turnover employees, including many health care workers.

Johnna Cossaboon, communications director for the Virginia Governmental Employees Association, said the state workers’ raises will help “put a dent” in the staff vacancies but there’s still a long way to go to bring stagnant state worker pay up to par with their counterparts in the private sector.

If vacancy rates are high, Cossaboon said, then employees are asked to work more hours and cover different shifts, which makes them more stressed and more likely to look for a different job.

“It’s a vicious cycle,” she said.

Barber said his department is conducting a compensation study for RNs and physicians and making “aggressive use” of international registered nurses to try to fill some of the staffing gaps.

He also updated the panel on the implementation of several pieces of mental health legislation that were passed this year, including a measure intended to ensure that patients can be evaluated the first time they walk in at one of the state’s 40 community services boards.

The same-day access requirement means the boards have to change their scheduling process, but it “virtually eliminates no-show appointments,” Barber said. Lawmakers appropriated only enough funding to roll it out at up to 18 boards, with the remainder intended to be funded next year.

“This is a really important step,” Barber said. “It needs to be finished.”

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