WINNEBAGO COUNTY, Wis. (WBAY) - Employees at Winnebago Mental Health Institute say they are being
pushed to the limit, forced to work overtime to cover dozens of vacant jobs. Some go days without sleep, creating personal health problems, and putting patients and the community at risk.
"There's no other option, and I just feel like this needs to come out, because I don't think that the average person knows what we go through," says Wendy Volkman, psychiatric care technician.
Employees reached out to Target 2 Investigates to express frustration about the situation at the state psychiatric hospital.
They say nothing has been done to fix the problems.
Target 2 Investigates spent three months speaking with current and former employees, pouring over documents, and contacting state officials.
Here's what we found:
FOUR WOMEN, SAME STORY
"People are tired. People are mentally drained, physically drained," says Denise Koentopp, psychiatric care technician.
"I can tell you this week alone, I was forced three shifts in four days," says Wendy Volkman.
"The overtime is crazy," says Renee Durant, psychiatric care technician.
With more than 30 years combined experience, these women are current and former employees of the Winnebago Mental Health Institute in Oshkosh.
It's one of two state psychiatric hospitals run by the Department of
Health Services. It's labeled as the "safety net in Wisconsin's mental
These women feel that safety net is in jeopardy.
"You can't concentrate. Because lack of sleep, your brain is all over
the place. You're tired," Durant says.
Corinna Lundquist left her job as a psychiatric care technician, or PCT, this summer. She worried that constant forced overtime was making her an absentee parent.
"I worked 16-and-a-half, 16-and-a-half, a 12, got forced again on day
four, worked the whole thing. Sixteen-and-a-half and at the end of that, I had not slept from day one, because, again, I was on third shift, and chose to see my kids for the second shift hours I was home," Lundquist says.
Driving home from work after a double shift, she realized the job was
putting other people at risk.
"Not only did I fall asleep at the stop light, but I didn't even wake up to people honking at me," Lundquist says. "Somebody had to physically get out of their vehicle and rap on my car door to wake me up."
Corinna is not the only one.
"Sometimes I've only gotten three or four hours of sleep. Go back to work, work a 16-hour shift and then try to drive home. I've already
fallen asleep," says Koentopp.
DOZENS OF VACANCIES
Target 2 obtained records showing that as of Oct. 23, there were 60
vacancies at Winnebago Mental Health Institute. That's about 10 percent of the hospital's entire staff.
There are two dozen openings for PCTs.
Because Winnebago Mental Health Institute is a 24/7 facility, someone
must cover those vacant positions.
"It's like a last-minute force," Koentopp says. "Oh, we have nobody to cover that."
Patients have noticed.
Target 2 received hand-written letters from patients. One comment:
"staff look like zombies."
We also found three formal complaints filed with the state in the last year-and-a-half. The complaints include these allegations:
"Staff are overworked."
"Incredibly understaffed to the point of affecting patient safety."
"Care is substandard and units are not safe."
Koentopp notices the effect on patients.
"They feel it. They feel the tension. It's horrible," Koentopp says.
A "DRAINING" JOB
Denise Koentopp and Renee Durant say being tired makes staff more
prone to injury.
Each woman has been hurt on the job.
Target 2 found 512 injuries to staff at Winnebago Mental Health Institute since January 2016.
"I would like to stay there as long as I can but it's a very draining job and I don't know how much longer I'll be able to do it," Volkman says.
Target 2 looked for answers from WMHI's director. They referred us to
the Department of Health Services in Madison.
DHS also declined an interview. The agency sent Target 2 a two-page
statement (scroll down for the full statement) citing workforce shortages in health care, especially for PCTs.
The agency points to patient admissions, which can change by the hour.
While DHS says staffing and resources are a top priority, a spokesperson tells Target 2 an independent consulting firm is now being brought in to study operations, specifically staffing.
In what it labels "creative methods", DHS spent $12,629.62 on a print, radio, and billboard recruitment blitz this fall.
The state says that brought in 70 new applicants.
Current employees fear new hires won't stick around if more doesn't change.
"They get the first force, and they're like, are you kidding me? And they're gone," Koentopp says.
DHS tells Target 2 it is working with staffing agencies, and adding training to get new hires on the job faster. It's also bringing in staff from other state treatment facilities to cover peak periods of overtime.
DHS says results from the study should be finished by early 2018.
Target 2 will continue to follow this story for recommendations or
FULL STATEMENT FROM DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH SERVICES
"As you are well aware, there are workforce shortages affecting many health care classifications throughout the state, including direct care positions such certified nursing assistants (known at WMHI as psychiatric care technicians), as well as with nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, and other medical staff.
Certified nursing assistants, in particular, are sought after by public and private sector entities alike including at nursing homes, assisted living facilities, health care centers, and other hospitals. This has resulted in position vacancies at many health care facilities including WMHI.
One of the challenges at WMHI, is that the facility experiences significant fluctuations in the patient population throughout the year. The number of patient admissions varies daily, resulting in periods during which overtime is required of direct care staff, and also periods during which overtime shifts are offered on a voluntary basis. The number of psychiatric care technician staff needed on any shift is driven by the acuity needs of the patients who arrive on any given day, and can fluctuate from day-to-day..
Ensuring we have the staff and resources necessary to best treat patients facing serious mental health challenges is a top priority for DHS and the state. DHS is currently doing a comprehensive study to review processes, including how we deliver service at our care and treatment facilities, to ensure our operations are as efficient and effective as possible. An independent consulting firm began the review October 1, and it is expected to be complete early next year. The consulting firm will produce a report that assesses the WMHI staffing model, including recommendations for improvements to ensure all areas of the institution are adequately staffed to meet the needs of patients. Meanwhile, DHS continues to make every effort to fill position vacancies when they occur and reduce the amount of overtime required of WMHI staff.
In order to meet the challenges posed by factors including variations in patient population, and an industry-wide workforce shortage, WMHI has sought out creative ways to attract new applicants to fill their direct care staff vacancies and reduce overtime for current staff.
• The facility engaged in radio and billboard advertising as part of a recruitment blitz in early fall that resulted in approximately 70 new applicants.
• The facility has begun working with health care staffing agencies to increase the number of direct care and health care staff available, particularly during times of peak admissions and discharges.
• The facility has utilized limited term employees to augment permanent staff during periods of increased vacancies.
• Direct care staff from other DHS care and treatment facilities have volunteered to provide regular and overtime shift coverage in support of the dedicated staff at WMHI during peak periods.
• The facility has increased the frequency of direct care staff training classes to shorten the length of time from date of hire to the date the employee is able to provide care to patients.
WMHI is deeply committed to providing high quality, compassionate patient care. DHS values the dedicated work of the WMHI staff in meeting the needs of patients who enter the facility."