Colorado DHS agrees to Pueblo meeting about CMHIP

From the FULL COVERAGE: CMHIP in crisis series

Top state officials responsible for the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo will have a town hall meeting in Pueblo next month to discuss the chronic staffing problems at the hospital.

Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and state Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, said they had each gotten the commitment for an October meeting from Reggie Bicha, director of the Colorado Department of Human Services.

Bicha and other DHS administrators had a series of public meetings around the state this summer but conspicuously didn’t schedule one in Pueblo, despite the serious staffing issues that burst into public view when The Pueblo Chieftain reported in June the hospital was in jeopardy of losing its Medicare funding because of a severe staff shortage in patient-care jobs.

“We’re going to have the town hall meeting somewhere in the city where the community can turn out,” Esgar said Friday. The actual date, time and place were being finalized.

State Sen. Leroy Garcia, D-Pueblo, joined Esgar last summer in demanding that Bicha put Pueblo on the schedule of public meetings. Esgar also gave credit to Lynne for helping with that demand.

“DHS is responding to having our fingers in their faces,” she said.

And the problem at CMHIP hasn’t improved this summer. DHS officials confirmed Friday the number of vacancies in the critical patient-care jobs was back to 97 out of 723 positions.

That’s exactly how many patient care jobs were empty June 5, when the hospital failed an inspection by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. That failure caused the federal Centers for Medicare Services to warn the hospital was in “immediate jeopardy” of losing any Medicare funding.

In response, the hospital canceled leave for employees and required mandatory overtime shifts of up to 16 hours or longer. Superintendent Ron Hale resigned right after the failed inspection, and DHS is in the process of hiring a new superintendent.

But the administration upheaval continues. Nancy VanDeMark, the state director of behavioral health, has been the spokeswoman on how the hospital is dealing with the staffing problem. She announced her resignation this week, effective Sept. 28.

State officials said Dr. Robert Werthwein, the current director of the Office of Children, Youth, and Families, will take her place.

Esgar said state lawmakers are looking at several options in attacking the staffing problem, including raising salaries for patient-care staff.

Lynne said getting a new superintendent hired is a first step toward improving the work conditions.

Garcia, for his part, has pushed DHS to allow less-specialized health care workers, such as paramedics, to fill some staff jobs. Earlier this summer, hospital administrators began training correctional officers at CMHIP to do patient supervision, hoping to ensure the hospital won’t flunk its next state inspection.

Mental Health Colorado, a non-profit, hosted a meeting here last Tuesday with local officials and DHS representatives, including VanDeMark.

Andrew Romanoff, the former state Speaker of the House, is executive director of the advocacy organization. Among the suggestions that came up was offering tuition credit and loan-forgiveness to attract young professionals to work at CMHIP.

“It was clear the hospital can’t compete with Parkview and St. Mary-Corwin (hospitals) in trying to recruit nurses and other staff, unless the state can make it worthwhile to work there,” he said.

This article originally appeared in the Pueblo Chieftain.