01/30/04 — Cherry-O'Berry alliance

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Cherry-O'Berry alliance

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on January 30, 2004 2:02 PM

State officials announced Thursday that they plan to consolidate administrative and clinical services at O'Berry Center and Cherry Hospital.

The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services plans to bring the two Goldsboro facilities under a single management team, headed by O'Berry Director Dr. Jerry Lyall. Some administrative support, budget and personnel operations will be merged immediately. The transition will be completed in July.

Cherry Director Jerry Edwards will remain as a special deputy to assist with the consolidation. Dr. Edwards plans to retire in February 2005.

Officials said they do not foresee any loss of jobs for current employees. A reduction in the number of positions is expected through normal attrition. As positions become vacant at either facility, they will be carefully reviewed to determine whether they should be filled, realigned with the new management structure, or abolished.

Meanwhile, the state is changing the mission of O'Berry Center. Currently, the center serves eastern North Carolinians with severe developmental disabilities, but DHHS now intends to direct those patients to the Caswell Center in Kinston.

"Both Caswell and O'Berry had been providing the same services to eastern North Carolina," said DHHS Secretary Carmen Hooker Odom. "As we move forward on mental health reform, it is clear that we don't need two facilities so close together serving the same population."

State Sen. John Kerr was among the legislators who attended a breakfast meeting with Ms. Hooker Odom on Thursday morning.

"There's been an apprehension about having these three centers here," he said. "I think this is real good news."

DHHS intends for O'Berry Center to serve a population it feels is now underserved, those who are both developmentally disabled and also suffer from other severe forms of mental illness.

"Currently, there is no state facility aimed at people with this kind of dual diagnosis," Ms. Hooker Odom said. "Allying the developmental disabilities facility with the psychiatric hospital will allow the state to create a place for people who need this kind of residential care.

"This is exactly the kind of service the state should be providing. This facility will serve as a model both for North Carolina and the nation."

As part of the plan, O'Berry will not accept any new patients with a single diagnosis of developmental disabilities. Current patients will stay as long as their guardians and family concur with placement in the community or decide on another residential facility.

"No family who put residents at O'Berry will be moved until the family and the resident agree and can find an adequate place for them," she said. "We'll honor their pact for these folks for the rest of their lives."

Cherry and O'Berry have a long history of partnership. Both functioned as one from the time Cherry was created in 1880 until O'Berry opened in 1957 and developmental disabilities services were moved out of the hospital.

Ms. Hooker Odom said populations at both hospitals have dropped in recent years due to efforts to move patients from institutional care to community care. That trend is expected to continue.

She called the move a mechanism to create more efficiency without any reduction in force.

"None of our facilities are going to close," she said. "We're going to create a very inclusive advisory structure and will move slowly, thoughtfully and inclusively."

The notification process started on Thursday. Management at both hospitals was to have sent out letters to employees, and family members of residents were to be invited to a meeting about the changes.

Ms. Hooker Odom said the timing was right for the merger.

"We had a window of opportunity from a management standpoint," she said. "Dr. Edwards has announced his intention to retire, and we wanted to draw on his substantial knowledge for this crucial transition before he leaves. We didn't want to lose this valuable resource.

"We also have several high-level management positions that had opened up or were about to open up, and now seemed like an excellent time to embark on this new challenge."

Cherry has 1,100 employees and 300 patients. O'Berry serves 306 clients and has 1,051 on staff.

Employees at the two hospitals have voiced concerns about working conditions over the years. A union was formed, and last spring the state sent an independent investigator to hear employees' grievances.

Kerr said that 400 employees were interviewed during the investigator's time in Goldsboro.

Findings from that investigation have not been made public, but Ms. Hooker Odom promised to release information soon. Action has been taken to improve the situation, but she would not elaborate. She said a plan has been implemented at the hospital, and efforts are being made to reassure workers.

"I'm 100 percent committed to making sure our employees are working in conditions that you and I would want to work in," she said. "We're not there yet, but we're working as hard as we can to get there."

She said a new nursing director has been hired along with a personnel director who is "employee-friendly."

"We're working very diligently to make sure that our human resource office responds to the needs of the employees, and if they have a problem, to make sure that we iron those problems out," she said.