The hope is that the new Oregon State Hospital will conjure images far different than what we all remember from the movie “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” The reality is that Oregon has a new, state-of-the-art mental hospital but some of the same old problems.
In fact, even as Gov. Ted Kulongoski and other state leaders prepare to dedicate the new hospital in Salem today, the move of the first 100 patients to new wards has been delayed until January. The hospital doesn’t have staff ready to care for them.
Built alongside the 127-year-old existing institution, the new hospital looks and sounds like a different world. Instead of slamming gates, windows covered by bars, and rooms designed for two but crammed with six beds, the new facility features private or semi-private rooms, a security system with face recognition, and sensory retreats featuring cushy chairs, calm music and dimmed lighting.
If feels like a place to get better, rather than like a prison, said Matthew Kirby, 21, who was admitted to the hospital a year ago after being found guilty except for insanity on felony burglary and misdemeanor assault charges.
Kirby, who toured the new building with other patients this week, says he appreciates the state’s investment. But without other changes, he worries that the hospital “will still have a decaying culture inside a pretty facade.”
Despite a $60 million commitment from the Legislature and a hiring blitz over the past several months, hospital Superintendent Greg Roberts said he didn’t have adequate staff to put the first group of maximum-security patients into the new wards on Nov. 29 as planned before he started the job in September.
Hiring is ahead of schedule but training takes time and some positions have been hard to fill, Roberts said.
Other numbers also raise questions about promised improvements.
Patient attacks on other patients and on staff are occurring at roughly the same rate as two years ago. The use of seclusion to control patient behavior has declined, but the use of restraints has increased slightly.
After visiting the wards in July, consultants from Pennsylvania-based Liberty Healthcare concluded that the hospital “has invested great vigor in striving to improve, but the results to date have been disappointing.”
Roberts said the state is preparing to spend almost $2 million to hire another set of consultants to help speed changes in the wards.
As the new wards are completed, there’s a growing sense of urgency, he said Wednesday. “We should be bringing a much better hospital into that new building.”
Oregonians have been talking about the need for a better hospital for years.
In 2005, consultants warned state officials that the decrepit buildings held too many people and probably would collapse in an earthquake. In 2006, The Oregonian’s Rick Attig and Doug Bates won a Pulitzer prize for editorial writing for their editorials on abuses inside the hospital.
And in 2007, with a threatened lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice, the Legislature approved $458.1 million to replace the crumbling hospital with a 620-bed facility in Salem and a 360-bed hospital in Junction City.
Today, the new Salem hospital has grown from 635,000 to 870,000 square feet. The first patients are scheduled to move in Jan. 10, with more patients and staff joining them through 2011, as the complex is completed.
Linda Hammond, administrator of the replacement project, said increasing the size has brought some “budget challenges.”
“Right now, I’ve got a target, and I’m doing everything I can do to get to that target,” she said Wednesday.
Meanwhile, mental health advocates and some legislators are questioning whether Oregon should continue with plans to build a second state hospital in Junction City. Instead of investing in big-box institutions, advocates say the state would be better off spending money for community mental health care.
Several legislators, including House Speaker Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone, say Oregon’s cash-strapped state government can’t afford to borrow $185 million for Junction City or spend hundreds of millions each year to staff and run the two hospitals.
Senate President Peter Courtney vowed again Wednesday to continue with the master plan lawmakers adopted years ago to build a state mental health care system.
“We’ve got to keep going,” said Courtney, D-Salem, who was upset when the hospital superintendent announced last week that leaders would be dedicating a new hospital building but had delayed moving patients to the new wards.
“We’ve come so far,” he said. “I’m fearful it would be so easy to fall back.”