The Lincoln Regional Center was first established in 1869, just outside the capital city. It treats adults with mental illnesses, and those committed for being not responsible for committing a crime due to a mental illness, at several buildings on a campus just southwest of the city. (Paul Hammel/Nebraska Examiner)
LINCOLN — State Sen. Carol Blood has stepped in on behalf of workers and patients at the Lincoln Regional Center, saying that assaults, equipment needs and mandatory overtime add up to unsafe conditions at the state psychiatric hospital.
The Bellevue lawmaker has challenged Gov. Jim Pillen to act swiftly, noting that he is aware and has been meeting with union officials who told the Nebraska Examiner that change isn’t happening fast enough.
“It’s getting very dangerous,” said Blood.
Pillen’s office on Monday received a letter from Blood outlining concerns, including that a group of workers had been discussing a possible protest.
A spokeswoman for the governor confirmed receipt of the letter and said: “A response will be provided to her office in due course.”
‘Corrections facility meets hospital’
Blood said mental health specialists, or “techs,” at the Regional Center contacted her in early August, describing conditions at the 250-bed inpatient psychiatric hospital operated by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
The complex serves people in need of specialized mental health services and adults committed for being not responsible for a crime due to a mental illness.
A union representative for the mental health specialists described the Regional Center as a “corrections facility meets hospital” — and said different and better training is needed for the techs to be able to defend themselves when working among potentially violent patients.
Mike Chipman, president of the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 88, which represents the techs, said that he’s seen an uptick in techs seeking hospital attention as a result of work conditions. He said one tech recently had surgery on his face after an attack.
“Nobody should have to be a punching bag,” said Chipman.
The techs experience the majority of patient contact, Blood said, handling duties such as mental health episodes, helping with patient treatments and even tending to janitorial tasks such as taking out the trash.
She said there appears to be a shortage of portable radios, which are a critical tool for techs who might need to call for assistance in a crisis. Break times have been reduced.
Mandatory overtime shifts weren’t common until July 2023, Blood said, based on data she has been provided.
Patients are at risk, Blood added.
“It appears that patients aren’t able to be controlled in a compassionate manner due to ongoing staffing shortage, specifically for techs,” she said.
Response ‘slow going’
Jerry Brittain, vice president of the FOP Lodge 88, said concerns stem from multiple sources, including administrative changes, staff turnover and inadequate training for techs whose pay starts at $25.75 an hour.
He said that while he is “optimistic” that the Governor’s Office will respond with improvements, “it’s been slow going and we would like to step it up.”
Blood’s letter, and complaints from techs who said they didn’t want to be identified for fear of retaliation, follows a report last December that said assaults on staff at the Regional Center nearly doubled in 2022.
It also noted critical vacant positions that year at the Regional Center.
The report, an annual review of Nebraska’s public institutions, has been required since 2020, when unsafe conditions at the Youth Rehabilitation and Treatment Center for girls in Geneva forced the youths to be relocated to a Kearney facility that previously housed only boys.
Blood said Pillen’s office has known, since late July, about talks of mental health technicians possibly organizing a protest. Their contract prohibits walking off the job, but the protest, if it happened, would be outside the Capitol by off-duty workers.
“This is the time for appropriate oversight and greater transparency to Nebraskans,” Blood said in her letter.
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