The dire straits facing the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo has been a well-documented story in Colorado. When federal investigators reviewed the facility for the second time in 2017, they declared it “understaffed by as much as 20 percent.”
The 449-bed facility, according to officials, was missing 97 people from its 723 patient-care staff. The shortage was so significant that the federal government threatened to pull Medicaid and Medicare funding from the facility pending a follow-up review on June 28.
State officials responded by creating a stopgap plan that has frozen employees opportunities for paid leave, implemented mandatory overtime and have begun offering signing bonuses for new hires while also reaching out to local hospitals about sharing nursing staff, among other things.
That stopgap, plan, however, is just that, as both state and federal agents have made it clear that drastic reform measures are needed to help CMHIP get back to where it needs to be and retain its federal funding.
CIRCLE program closure
One immediate reaction to the staffing issues was to cut the 20-bed treatment program aimed to treat patients for both drug addiction and mental illness. For many in Pueblo and around the state, the CIRCLE program was considered the gold standard. The 90-day residential program is rare in that it treats patients suffering from both drug addiction and mental illness.
“I went through three cycles, one in-patient and two outpatient,” said Greg Jobs, 39, who spent time in a similar program at Utah Valley Hospital in Provo, Utah and still suffers from mental illness, but has recovered from his drug addiction. “The first time around, I was in a bed and in need of help – even though I really didn’t want to admit it. I was there for almost a month, I really can’t imagine how crushing it would have felt to be in that situation and then tossed out of it. I would have felt like discarded garbage, not even good enough for the bin, you know? That’s tough to throw on addict, especially with mental illness.”
The state Department of Human Services has said all the patients within CIRCLE have been transferred to other programs. The shutdown is being called temporary at this time, but with deeper problems looming at CMHIP there is not a lot of optimism.
“We’re in an era where overdoses are higher than they’ve ever been,” said Ted Johansen, of Narconon Colorado, a rehabilitation center in Fort Collins. “Statistics, studies, you can present all the analysis about the problem that you want to, but nothing gets done without professional help. It’s a shame they had to close for reasons that had nothing to do with the performance of the program.”
Though CIRCLE was closed, other programs have suffered as well. Group therapy sessions have been cancelled due to lack of staff and patients staying at the hospital have missed therapy because staff wasn’t available to take them.
“That’s catastrophic,” Jobs said. “Even though you are surrounded by people, you are still by yourself a lot and those therapy sessions, they are your connection to a semblance of society. To lose therapy, to lose the interpersonal contact from group sessions, those [patients] aren’t getting the help they need.”
Something current staffers have been most vocal about is the sliding pay scale for current employees. With a big push being made to recruit and hire new employees to fill current voids new hires are often being paid at a higher hourly wage than tenured employees.
Hiring processes continue, however, for CMHIP. Events to hire employees similar to speed dating have occurred and will continue to occur as will paid referrals and sign-on bonuses.