ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) — Workers at a Minnesota psychiatric facility are being hurt on the job more often due in part to a recent state law that has forced the facility to quickly admit more jail inmates.
Through November, the first full year since the law requiring that psychiatric hospitals accept mentally ill inmates from county jails took effect, 40 assaults have been reported at the Anoka-Metro Regional Treatment Center, according to state data. That’s up from 24 such reports in 2013. Just this week, three staffers were hospitalized after being attacked by a patient, according to an employee.
To date, the change has ushered nearly 150 possibly violent and volatile inmates into facilities that state officials say aren’t equipped to handle them. The result?
Workplace injury and assault reports at Anoka-Metro have climbed in 2014, though they remain on pace with 2012. One union’s workers’ compensation claims at the facility this year have nearly tripled compared to 2013.
“Staff are literally putting their lives on the line, and our injury rates will continue to go up,” said Jackie Spanjers, a nurse and the local union president at Anoka-Metro. “It’s not working.”
State legislators unanimously passed the so-called 48-hour rule last year, hoping to stop county jails from being dumping grounds for the mentally ill after a man stabbed himself in the eyes while awaiting psychiatric care in a Hennepin County. The law requires a transfer within 48 hours, often ahead of patients waiting in hospitals — regardless of the severity of their condition.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rick Stanek and other law enforcement officials have defended the law. Stanek said up to 30 percent of inmates in the state’s largest jail system suffer from mental health issues.
“The jail is not the best place for someone with a mental illness. They should be receiving psychiatric care in a state facility,” Stanek said last year.
Since the law took effect in July 2013, 147 inmates have been moved from Minnesota jails to Anoka-Metro or other state-run facilities. Anoka-Metro has admitted many of those transfers, Deputy Human Services Commissioner Anne Barry said.
Disturbing stories of patients being improperly restrained or abused by caretakers have triggered reforms for how those patients are handled in Minnesota. At Anoka-Metro, some staff fear their clients after a string of workplace injuries.
Spanjers, 63, said she is recovering from a torn tendon in her shoulder suffered when a client shoved her into a counter in January. Another staff member suffered broken bones in his face earlier this year after being assaulted by a patient who had been transferred from a jail, she said.
The influx of inmates has eroded Spanjers’ sense of safety at work. Clients from jail also pick fights with other patients or egg them on to hurt their caretakers, she said.
And though she agrees there are other factors behind the rise in workplace injuries — a hesitance to use force against potentially abusive patients chief among them — she said she and her co-workers believe the 48-hour rule is largely responsible.
Deputy Human Services Comissioner Anne Barry put some of the blame on the 2013 law, too.
“We’re complying with the 48-hour rule, but we did that law change pretty quickly,” Barry said in an interview. “You never know what the unintended consequences are going to be.”
Workplace injuries aren’t the first of those consequences.
The law has strained the mental health system as a whole by creating a backlog of patients in psychiatric wards waiting for an opening at the state-run facilities.
“They used to send them to us, and now those beds are being filled by people who are coming to us directly from jail,” Barry said.
The department plans to offer a bill next legislative session to address both issues by tweaking the 48-hour rule, but Barry said it’s too early to say what those changes may entail.
State Sen. Kathy Sheran, a Mankato Democrat and chair of the Health, Human Services and Housing committee, said she thinks it’s too early to undo or change the 2013 law.
For now, Sheran said the state should try to free up bed space at the state’s psychiatric hospitals by moving out patients who don’t need that level of care. Nearly a third of Anoka-Metro patients no longer need medical care, according to state data.
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