KANEOHE, OAHU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Alleged nepotism, broken or unused facilities and key positions unfilled for long periods of time are several of the problems plaguing the Hawaii State Hospital, where employees have complained about suffering serious assaults from patients.
A State Senate briefing to look into safety problems at the state's only public mental hospital was postponed this week because of the Dec. 11 death of Health Director Loretta Fuddy in a plane crash off Molokai. Fuddy had spent part of the day Dec. 9 listening to employees' concerns when she visited the Kaneohe facility just two days before she died.
Two electric automobile gates were installed two and a half years ago outside the two units that house the most dangerous mental patients at the state hospital at a cost of $426,000, state health officials said.
But they never really worked right and the gate broke altogether last May, a state Health Department spokeswoman said. So now the state is spending more money to fix them.
While no patients have escaped from the area because of the broken gate, it's another example of troubled facilities at the hospital.
Employees carry mobile "panic buttons" to call for help in an emergency. But the system with receivers around hospital grounds doesn't always accurately alert security to the exact location of an employee who could be getting assaulted.
Acting Administrator Bill Elliott admits he could use a more-expensive and more-accurate GPS system.
"It's not GPS driven, now I would certainly love to get to a GPS-driven system but that requires resources and we'll try to get those," Elliott said.
A special psychiatric intensive care unit to house the most dangerous and psychotic patients closed one week after it opened in 2011, because a patient broke an employee's eye bone and nose in a severe assault. The staffer was out of work for six months, sources said.
It's taken more than two years to make safety improvements like installing an alarm button to summon help to the unit in emergencies and putting swipe cards instead of keyed locks on entrance doors so staff from other units can respond more quickly.
Now the hospital is negotiating with its unions to try to re-open the unit which has been used for overflow female patients.
Employees also complain that nepotism is rampant at the State Hospital.
"Managers are putting all their relatives in there," said a veteran employee who's worked at the hospital for more than twenty years and asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation. "That's the worst thing."
Director of Nursing Leona Guest told Hawaii News Now she has a son and daughter who have worked at the State Hospital for several years.
"We have quite a few individuals that work in the hospital that have relatives that work here," Guest said. "It's a small state. It's a very specific job description. You have to either love it or not love it."
Guest said that all applicants, including those related to supervisors and managers, go through the same screening and training process as anyone else.
But the employee who asked to remain anonymous said that's not true.
"They do the interview but it's all baloney because they know who they're going to pick," the employee said. "The hiring process is skewed toward relatives."
Medical director Dr. Bill Sheehan said his college-aged son spent three months working as a temp there.
"It brings up whether something is inappropriate or gives the appearance of impropriety," Sheehan said. "And we'd like to make that explicit and transparent. Like as you've asked questions, we'll answer them."
Figures released by the state show that employees were assaulted at least 120 times, an average of once every three days in 2012. Employees reported 91 assaults by patients so far this year, through the end of September. In the last three years, 16 assaults resulted in serious enough injuries that staffers sought medical attention and remained out of work sometimes for weeks, months and even years, state health officials said.
Even while it dealt with all these assaults, the hospital was without a person in charge of staff safety training for roughly the last year, Elliott said. A new clinical safety officer started work the day before Thanksgiving, he said, the same day a state workplace safety inspector showed up for an unannounced "workplace violence" investigation to look into the assaults.
Some employees question the new employees' credentials for the job, since while she worked previously as a social worker at the hospital, she had no direct one-on-one patient experience there. And she spent the last five years at the city prosecutor's office as a victim witness advocate.
Elliott said the new employee will do a "fine job" and "hit the ground running."
A second position, the facility safety officer in charge of making sure the physical plant is safe, has also been vacant but filled for months by someone on temporary assignment, Elliot said.
Elliott has been the acting administrator of the hospital since last spring, which raises the question of whether some of these problems come from a lack of permanent, skilled people in key positions.
"I don't think so. We're actively recruiting and the state civil service process, it takes time," Elliott said. "I don't have a hospital administrator right now, but I'm covering that role."