Are Oregon State Hospital consultants worth it?

From the Salem Statesman Journal, February 27, 2011

State officials refuse to answer questions about two mental-health consultants who have been paid $1 million to help the Oregon State Hospital respond to an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice investigation of the Salem psychiatric facility.

The taxpayer-subsidized tab for the consulting duo has nearly doubled since the Statesman Journal first reported on their pay in July 2009.

Despite this escalating expense, officials say the consultants work is off-limits to the public because it is part of the state’s response to the four-year federal investigation.

The hospital initially agreed to answer a set of written questions posed by the newspaper about the consultants work. Officials reversed course last week, opting not to respond.

In addition, officials canceled the newspaper’s prearranged Friday interview with OSH Superintendent Greg Roberts. The interview was set up to get the hospital leader’s take on the consulting work performed by Dr. Jeffrey Geller, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Kris McLoughlin, a mental-health consultant based in California.

Among the written questions submitted by the newspaper that were left unanswered:

  • Who do the two consultants report to at OSH?
  • Do they issue written reports, oral reports, or both?
  • How does their expertise benefit the hospital? What are some concrete examples?
  • In what specific ways have they assisted OSH in responding to the federal investigation?
  • How does their consulting role differ from the legal assistance provided to OSH by the state Attorney General’s Office?
  • How long will the two consultants continue to work at OSH?

On Friday, hospital spokeswoman Rebeka Gipson-King described the unwillingness to answer questions about the consultants as a mutual decision reached by the hospital and the state Attorney General’s Office.

“Everything that has to do with U.S. DOJ is going to go through the Attorney General’s Office,” she said.

Tony Green, a spokesman for Attorney General John Kroger, said the consultants work is confidential because the recommendations they make on how to improve patient care are connected to the federal investigation.

“The underlying issue is very much the subject of the investigation and potential legal action,” he said. “It’s not something that you can simply separate out and say there’s not a connection between that and the U.S. DOJ investigation. It’s a difficult situation because of the ongoing investigation. We’re doing our best to protect the state while addressing the concerns that are being raised.”

State officials enlisted help from Geller and McLoughlin in August 2006, shortly after the U.S. Department of Justice launched a civil-rights investigation into Oregon’s main mental hospital in June 2006.

Both consultants were highly regarded for their previous work in other states, which often focused on helping troubled psychiatric facilities deal with federal Justice Department investigations.

Terms of Oregon’s initial contracts with Geller and McLoughlin called for each to be paid $75,000, with the contracts to expire Dec. 31, 2006. However, the consultants have been kept on board through contract amendments.

The current veil of confidentiality on the consultants work is a departure from past practice at OSH.

In 2009, then-hospital Superintendent Roy Orr answered various questions that the newspaper posed to him about the work performed by Geller and McLoughlin.

Orr said the consultants typically visited the hospital each month, normally staying for several days and engaging in wide-ranging discussions with hospital officials and staffers.

“Every time they arrive, it’s like a one-week survey,” he said. “They start the week by asking, ‘What progress have you made on the major initiatives and the assignments we handed out last month?’ ”

Orr credited the consultants with playing key roles in helping the hospital launch reform-minded measures, such as sharply reducing the use of seclusion and restraints to control patients — one of many problems spotlighted by federal investigators.

Last week, Geller and McLoughlin separately declined Statesman Journal requests for interviews about their state hospital work, as they previously did in 2009.

In 2009, the newspaper reported that combined pay and expenses for Geller and McLoughlin totaled $517,859 from the start of their consulting work in September 2006 through July 3, 2009.

Since then, the state has paid out $498,384 to them in combined fees and travel expenses, raising the grand total to $1,016,243, according to pay and expense data obtained by the newspaper.

Geller and McLoughlin were the first in a series of outside consultants who have been brought in to help the hospital improve patient care and analyze operations during the prolonged federal investigation.

Among the former and current OSH advisers:

  • Former Lane County Circuit Judge James Hargreaves received $252,465 in state pay for the year he served as governor-appointed “special master” of the hospital. His 14-page report, issued in early 2009, rapped hospital management for poor planning, undefined goals and a lack of urgency.
  • Liberty Healthcare, a Pennsylvania-based consulting firm, was paid $175,000 to study the hospital last year. In September, the consultants concluded the hospital has “invested great energy and vigor in striving to improve, but the results to date have been disappointing.”
  • Kaufman Global, an Indiana-based consulting firm, is getting paid $2 million to spur culture change at the hospital and help it run more efficiently and effectively. The firm’s contract ends on June 30.

Above, Oregon State Senate President Peter Courtney criticizes Oregon State Hospital construction and opening delay in an interview with the editorial board of the Salem Statesman Journal in January 2011.