Some Virginia mental health institutions halting new patients amid staffing shortage


More than half of Virginia’s adult mental health institutions are temporarily halting the admission of new patients in response to serious staffing shortages, according to a letter sent out by Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services Commissioner Alison Land.

Five of Virginia’s eight institutions have stopped admitting new patients and must reduce their bed capacity limit to reflect their staffing levels. The letter said no person would be unsafely discharged, but the hospitals will not be able to admit new patients until patient volume is low enough to account for staffing shortages.

The department currently has 1,547 direct patients support staff vacancies. The department has tried to staff its facilities with international nurses and temporary contracts, which Land said is “incredibly expensive” and sometimes triples the cost of regular employees. Many of the contract staff have also stopped renewing contracts or leaving prior to the end of the contract.

Land said the pandemic led many staffers to find other types of work and recent exit interviews show staffers leaving because of increased hours and a lack of safety. With the ongoing shortages, she said the work environment has become dangerous and both staff and patients are at a greater risk of physical harm. There have been at least 63 serious injuries to staff and patients since the beginning of June and there are 4.5 injuries or incidents daily.

Mental health institutions are not the only places suffering from staffing shortages. Similar shortages have been affecting businesses in recent months and business groups have urged the government to take action, such as ending the additional $300 in weekly federal unemployment benefits instituted during the pandemic.

The shortages, Land said, makes it harder to provide effective treatments to patients.

The department is working to fix the shortage and intends to increase bed capacity when it is feasible to do so. Land said she does not want the temporary halt to last one day longer than it needs to.

In response, the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police & Foundation said the mental health system is broken and the current situation prevents officers from transporting those with mental health problems to locations at which they can receive help.

“There is literally no place for people to go who are in critical need of mental health services,” VACP said in a statement.

“Law enforcement does not have a viable choice: if an [emergency commitment order or temporary detention order] is ordered and there is no psychiatric bed, the only option is street release,” the statement said. “This is not a viable or responsible option for the treatment and care of an individual in mental health crisis. More than 25 years ago, Virginia made a verbal commitment to community-based mental health care to eliminate the use of state institutions. The verbal commitment has never been realized. The mental health system says it lacks capacity to meet the needs of the mentally ill. Law enforcement cannot answer this lack of capacity nor meet the expectations of the public when it comes to mental health care. Virginia is in a state of crisis, and no one is listening.”

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