New approach needed for state mental hospitals

West Virginia’s treatment of some of the most unfortunate among us, the mentally ill, has been controversial for decades. Periodically, judges step in to order changes.

Given the duration of efforts to improve the system, it may seem incredible part of it is broken again. But it is, and no one seems to have ideas to repair it that are acceptable to a judge overseeing the situation.

Major changes were made in operations at state mental hospitals many years ago. For a time it seemed the matter finally had been settled. But in 2009 a court case over the hospitals was reopened after complaints conditions had gone downhill.

Both the William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston and the Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital in Huntington are understaffed. Between the two state-operated facilities, there are 89 vacancies. That is more than 10 percent of normal staff levels.

Staff shortages have affected both the treatment of patients and the safety of employees. State officials have pleaded the wage scales they can offer are not adequate to fill vacancies.

Kanawha County Circuit Judge Bloom had ordered the Bureau for Behavioral Health and Health Facilities to devise a plan to resolve the problem. But on Wednesday, Bloom rejected all three proposals submitted by the agency.

One plan was to privatize the hospitals, while another proposed staff be treated as contract workers. The third idea was to change how state employees at the hospitals are paid, hired and fired.

None of the proposals is acceptable, Bloom said. He ordered both state officials and Mountain State Justice, which took the state to court, to come up with new proposals within 10 days.

State officials seem to have been backed into a corner. It appears the only way out is to offer substantially higher pay for employees at the hospitals. Of course, if that is what Bloom orders, that is what will happen.

But the judge should reconsider. The idea of judges setting pay scales for public employees is not appealing, except in an absolute emergency situation. Why not allow privatization of the hospitals, which presumably would result in competitive pay being offered? That approach has worked in solving other problems with services provided by government.