HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Two key state senators said Tuesday that a "hostile work environment" exists at the troubled State Hospital, and they're concerned the situation there is spiraling "out of control" as health officials detailed what they called an "action plan" to make improvements and staffers said their concerns have been ignored for years.
"This thing is a can of worms that's going to be very difficult to unravel," said State Sen. Clayton Hee, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee said as an informational briefing got under way Tuesday morning.
"There's a vicious cycle that's being established," said State Sen. Josh Green, chairman of the Senate health committee, which held the joint briefing with the judiciary committee. "That it's a challenging workplace with challenging patients. You end up short-staffed. The work becomes difficult. And then assaults occur because the workers are overwhelmed or exhausted or we just don't have enough staff. And then more workers are out and it takes you a long time to hire and it spirals out of control."
State health officials said they plan numerous improvements at the State Hospital, two months after a Hawaii News Now investigation found roughly one employee is assaulted every three days, with some of them out of work for months and even years with serious injuries.
They plan to improve and increase employee training from twice a year to perhaps every three months, said Acting State Hospital Director Bill Elliott.
State health officials also hope to reduce the average time – 28 days -- it takes for court approval to force medication on dangerous patients. The process can take anywhere from eight to 45 days, leaving staffers to deal with the dangerous patient while the case goes before a judge. But health officials admitted they have never asked state lawmakers to change the law to improve the situation, in spite of increased patient loads in recent years.
"The attention of the Department of Health at the highest level is on this issue, and that will continue to be," said Gary Gill, who became acting director of the health department after former director Loretta Fuddy died in an airplane crash off Molokai last month.
The state is also asking for $2.5 million to plan a new facility at the site of Goddard Hall, a long-vacant state hospital building that's been closed for years and is slated for demolition.
"The current facility at HSH is past its effective lifetime. We need a new facility there and we are moving forward with that," said Lynn Fallin, the health department's deputy director for behavioral health.
Three state hospital employees, who first detailed violent assaults they suffered from patients to Hawaii News Now in a story Nov. 11, testified before senators Tuesday.
Psychiatric technician Ryan Oyama, who said his supervisor, a nurse manager, threatened to make up sexual harassment charges to fire him because he did an interview with Hawaii News Now, had a question for state health officials.
"How come the changes started happening now, only after we came to HNN? We came out, we came forward," Oyama said. "We've had meetings after meetings with the administration and everything about safety and nothing has happened for years now."
Another psychiatric technician, Kalford Keanu, said he, too was targeted by that same nurse manager for complaining about staffing and other problems at the hospital.
Keanu said the woman faked charges that he neglected one patient and assaulted another, falsely claiming she witnessed the incident. But surveillance video showed the supervisor wasn't present on the ward to see anything that happened, Keanu said.
Even after he was exonerated by an Attorney General's investigation of the incident, Keanu said, he was disciplined, transferred off the ward he'd worked on for seven years and sent to anger management training.
"I did my job. But I got reprimanded and I got moved off the unit. So what does that set for all my co-workers?" Keanu told senators.
Sources said Oyama and Keanu's supervisor is now under investigation herself and has been on leave for the last month.
Hee said the joint committee plans to subpoena employees and supervisors.
"And the reason for that is to protect certain individuals who are employed by the Hawaii State Hospital who are fearful of reprisals and retaliation," Hee said. 'There's a hostile workplace environment at the Hawaii State Hospital."
Hee read from an email from a state hospital nurse who feared for her job if she spoke out but complained about hiring and promotions based on nepotism and favoritism.
"Instead of having a strong, skilled patient care staff, we have somebody's aunty, literally, tiny senior ladies who have no knowledge of patient care or mental health. Please investigate nepotism," Hee read from the anonymous employee's email.
Hee and Green said they plan to hold several more briefings on the State Hospital situation over the coming weeks. The next one has been scheduled for Jan. 22.
"I sit here with a genuine fear for my job. Yes I do," said Josh Akeo, a registered nurse who's worked at the hospital for five years and has been out of work since August after he was repeatedly kicked in the head by a patient and suffered a dislocated jaw and a potential brain injury. Akeo was one of four employees who originally spoke out about serious assaults on staff in Hawaii News Now's November investigation.
Since HNN's first story Nov. 11, senators began their own probe, the state labor department began a workplace violence investigation, the hospital conducted a safety review when managers and supervisors met with employees on all the units to discuss safety improvements and just two days before she died, Fuddy, the then-health director, met with employees to get their feedback on needed improvements.