The State Senate is launching a probe into assaults by mental patients on staff at the State Hospital in response to a Hawaii News Now investigation that revealed some employees are sidelined for weeks, months and even years with injuries.
State Sen. Clayton Hee, who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, and State Sen. Josh Green, an emergency room physician who chairs the Senate health committee, pledged to hold hearings on the situation in the next few weeks. They held a news conference Wednesday so other reporters could hear the stories from employees that Hawaii News Now first reported last Monday.
"If we're getting assaulted, who's gonna keep the patients safe? And that's the big concern is the patients," asked Kalford Keanu, a psychiatric technician who was out of work for ten months after being attacked from behind by a patient who had assaulted another staffer just two days before.
Emelinda Yarte has been out of work for nearly four years after her jaw was dislocated when she was slammed against the wall by a patient who was beating up another staff member. She is just 4 feet 11 inches tall and her attacker, was a mixed martial arts fighter who is about 5 feet 7 inches tall, she and fellow employees said. The same man attacked other staffers after Yarte's incident, they said.
"I know I got assaulted because there was a lack of staff on that day," Yarte told the news conference Wednesday.
They told stories of serious head, neck and back injuries that kept some of them out of work for months and years.
"If we're short-staffed, the risk for injury just goes, it's just ten fold," said Josh Akeo, a registered nurse who has been out of work for three months after he was kicked in the head by a patient in August. He suffered a severe concussion and jaw injury, losing about 30 pounds because he has a hard time eating because he can't fully open his mouth.
Akeo and others said chronic understaffing leads to this dangerous situation.
There's a one-third vacancy rate among para medical assistants, who can help control unruly mental patients.
The man who oversees the State Hospital still claims things are still OK by using temporary staff and overtime to fill vacancies.
"The hospital is adequately staffed. We have authority to hire. We've been exempted from freezes on hiring that apply to other state departments," said Mark Fridovich, the state's adult mental health administrator. He used to run the State Hospital for seven years until this past March and spoke to Hawaii News Now earlier this month.
"If Dr. Fridovich was assaulted, he might not feel the same way," Hee said. "And it's regrettable to hear from the state administrator there that staffing is adequate."
The senators say they will call officials from the state health department, prisons and judiciary to testify about what can be done to improve the situation.
"We'll be addressing and investigating the number of assaults, the severity of them and what we have to do make them totally accountable at the State Hospital in the matter," Green said.
Another State Hospital employee, Ryan Oyama, has been a psychiatric technician for nearly 11 years, and said he's been assaulted more than 60 times.
"At work, you don't know whether you're going to be punched in the head, kicked in the head or taken down, slammed against the bricks," Oyama said.
Oyama told reporters Wednesday he was threatened with losing his job for speaking to Hawaii News Now about problems there, the day after he did an on-camera interview.
"My immediate supervisor, my nurse manager threatened to have me fired," Oyama said.
He has filed a complaint about the incident.
Fridovich said "we take extremely seriously any allegation of staff intimidation," and he said the complaint will be investigated.
"We are concerned and saddened by the injuries sustained by our hospital staff who work in extremely challenging situations daily often facing risks that cannot be anticipated or prevented," Fridovich said in a written statement Wednesday.
"The well-being of our staff and patients at Hawaii State Hospital is always a priority and we want to do more to ensure their safety. We look forward to continuing to work with the Legislature to investigate this situation in the next few weeks," Fridovich added.
The employees said psychiatric technicians are sent by supervisors to find escaped patients without proper training or equipment to try to capture patients who've left State Hospital grounds.
"There is a misplaced responsibility on the techs to apprehend these people and there is a lack of training, if that's the responsibility of the techs," said Hee, who represents parts of Kaneohe, near the state's only public mental hospital.
Keanu, who's worked at the State Hospital for seven years, said, "I feel that we should get more training than the ACOs (prison guards) because we're getting the criminally insane, not just criminals."
The employees said a special unit to deal with the most violent inmates and called the Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit or PICU was renovated a few years back. The state spent about $500,000 on the project, a state Health Department spokeswoman said.
But the facility has not been used for that purpose after a dangerous patient severely attacked a psychiatric technician, breaking his eye bone, the employees said. Instead, the four-bed unit is now being used to handle any overflow of female patients who pose a minimal risk, a spokeswoman said.
"The taxpayers paid a bunch of money to build that unit and it's not being used for that purpose," Keanu said.
The employees also said the most dangerous patients are housed in the same unit as new patients who have just arrived and are being assessed, putting two potentially volatile populations of the mentally ill together.
"It's really disconcerting to me to hear that patients who've just been receiving intake are also put into an environment where there are unsafe, dangerous offenders," said Green, who deals with mental patients as an emergency department physician on the Big Island. " And that has to be addressed."