PUEBLO, Colo. (KRDO) -- The state's mental health hospital closed three units, keeping roughly 350 people waiting for treatment, as hospital officials struggle with staffing shortages amid rising patient demand.
The pandemic increased the workload at the Colorado Mental Health Institute at Pueblo (CMHIP) dramatically, according to Robert Werthwein, Director for the Office of Behavioral Health at the Colorado Department of Human Services.
Werthwein reports that CMHIP is receiving around 500 referrals per month for new evaluations, which is double what the institute received prior to the pandemic. On top of that, CMHIP is experiencing a roughly 34% vacancy in direct care positions, which translates to nearly 300 open jobs that need to be filled, forcing the hospital to close units.
"We are one of the largest employers in Pueblo. It's a 516-bed hospital. So, you can imagine that we've really tapped into that workforce over multiple years. There are other hospitals in Pueblo also competing for the same workforce," Werthwein said.
Despite being a direct care facility, the jobs CMHIP is looking to fill are not all nursing positions.
"You don't have to be a registered nurse, we are looking to fill client care aides, which is an entry-level position. So, if you want to work towards your certified nursing assistant's degree or certificate ... you can start at the hospital, these entry-level positions, and we will work with us and you'll get experience on your belt," Werthwein said.
Werthwein said roughly 100 beds are empty at the hospital until they can hire more staff.
"It is a huge number. It's an unfortunate number for the team that's there because that means they're covering shifts, extra shifts, having to come in, and then having to close the units. We have people who need those beds, and it's really unfortunate," Werthwein said, emphasizing that three units are closed.
When asked about the potential of raising wages to incentivize interested job candidates, Werthwein said they wouldn't rule out any solutions, but increasing pay rates is not as simple as it sounds for the state-run facility.
"We have a budget that is set in basically into law every year, and we have to abide by that budget. So, we work with legislators, whenever we need a significant increase in funding, we cannot exceed the funding we receive," Werthwein said. "We don't have reserves, so we're not sitting on reserves, maybe like some private hospitals can … if we want to make any significant adjustments, it's a process that we work with our partners in the General Assembly."
While the hospital tries to work through a waitlist of hundreds of patients, fines are racking up. CMHIP is under a federal lawsuit that requires them to treat patients more quickly than they're able to right now. The penalties for not treating patients more quickly result in millions of dollars worth of fines.
"We were so close, so close, right before the pandemic, to really serving all the people that need to be served in a timely fashion, but now, it's really, unfortunately, it's worse than it's ever been," Werthwein said. "This year, we paid $6 million in fines. That was sort of a special exception, though, because it's typically $10 million a year. So, next year, it'll go back to $10 million a year. So far, we paid $17 million in fines. Next year, we will pay $10 million in fines as a state if we do not get a handle on this."
That money comes from the state's legislature, meaning it can't go toward other needs in the state's general fund, which is made up of taxpayer money.
It also means that many of the patients waiting for treatment are stuck in county jails, which largely aren't designed to treat patients with advanced mental health needs.
"Think about a loved one who is very ill, and instead of then sending them to the hospital, you send them into a jail, right? That is not what we want for anybody that we care about," Werthwein said.
If you're interested in applying to work at CMHIP, you can learn more by clicking here.
Werthwein also encourages the community to check in on their loved ones who might be struggling with mental health in an effort to limit their contact with law enforcement, hoping to help address the overall issue on the front end.
"You can get professional help without trying to involve the law enforcement who have other things that really they should be focused on, like keeping the public safe," Werthwein said. "Unfortunately, we hear from law enforcement all the time that they feel bad that they have to arrest these individuals, and bring them to jail, because they know really, they should be in hospital."
If you or someone you love might need to use mental health resources, you can learn more by clicking here. You can also call the 24/7 hotline at 1-844-493-TALK (8255).