Officials with the Department of Health have spent the past several weeks developing a plan to address the shortage of nurses and other patient care staff within the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System and East Hospital in Jackson, La..

The plan will increase the base pay of nurses at the facility and provide incentives to recruit new staff.  Plans are also being developed to provide raises to other direct care staff at East Hospital. The plan is currently under review by DHH’s Human Resources Office, and an approval is expected in coming days.

According to William Payne, assistant secretary for the LDH Office of Mental Health, officials at LDH had been aware of staffing shortages and pay issues at the facility, and had been actively working to address these matters prior to a sickout 20 nurses staged on Monday, Oct. 2.

“I am disappointed that some members of the staff are taking this step to express their frustrations, because we have been working with employees at East Hospital, staying informed of problems they were experiencing and being responsive to their needs in developing a plan to upgrade pay and recruit more staff to the facility,” Payne said. “I do wish to thank the remaining staff at East Hospital, who have put contingency plans in place for an event like this and who are working to ensure continuing care and treatment for the state’s mentally ill patients.”

The Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System operates about 575 inpatient beds for needy citizens throughout the state. The system is licensed to serve patients who require long-term, inpatient care for persistent mental illnesses and for patients who are awaiting trail and seeking a sanity determination, or who have been found not guilty by reason of insanity. Since Hurricane Katrina resulted in the loss of nearly 100 state-operated mental health beds in the Greater New Orleans area, staff at East Hospital and other state-run mental health facilities have experienced a surge in patients.

Payne said he and other LDH mental health officials are aware this is creating a problematic situation for staff at East Hospital, but he is confided the department’s plan will better compensate the staff there and will allow LDH to be competitive in recruiting and retaining additional mental health professionals.

“We realize that both our support staff and direct care staff are being drawn away from the hospital by private health care companies that offer lucrative hiring bonuses, higher salaries and attractive benefit packages, and we want East Hospital to be more competitive,” Payne said. “As soon as we can, we will provide the space and expertise necessary to help with the mental health crisis that exists in our state.”