DHHR officials in a tight spot

West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources officials are in a tight spot, put there by a judge who clearly doesn’t want to hear excuses for failure to comply with his mandates.

Chronic staffing shortages at the state’s two psychiatric hospitals have resulted in complaints about patient care dating back years. The facilities are the William R. Sharpe Hospital in Weston and the Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital in Huntington.

Now, Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Louis “Duke” Bloom has issued a stern order to the DHHR. He told officials to have a plan to address staffing and other issues at the hospitals ready by June 11.

“Don’t come back and tell me that it’s subject to legislative approval,”?Bloom warned. “I want to know what your plan is.” If the DHHR falls short of the mandate, “the court may very well have to develop its own plan.”

Bloom is not given to issuing idle threats. In 2009, he ordered the agency to grant pay raises to some staff at the hospitals.

But DHHR officials face a severe dilemma. At one point this year, there were 89 vacant positions at the two hospitals. Agency officials have said pay scales make it difficult for them to compete with the private sector for employees. Mandatory overtime and contract workers often are used to ensure staffing is at least at adequate levels.

In terms of holding down costs, that may well be counterproductive. In March, the two hospitals had to pay 4,162 hours of overtime to employees.

DHHR officials may find their hands tied unless they can gain legislative approval for some changes.

A very narrow window of opportunity may exist to do just that. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin plans to call lawmakers into special session May 19. If DHHR officials need approval for changes necessary to satisfy Bloom, they should prepare to brief legislators during that meeting.

Again, Bloom’s impatience is backed by the power to issue orders from the bench. Whatever arrangement DHHR officials can make with legislators almost certainly will be preferable to that.