01/24/09 — Governor makes unannounced visit to Cherry

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Governor makes unannounced visit to Cherry

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on January 24, 2009 11:46 PM

Gov. Beverly Perdue made good on one of her campaign pledges Friday, dropping in unannounced at Cherry Hospital for a surprise visit.

During her campaign the governor promised that she would make surprise accountability inspections at state facilities, including its psychiatric hospitals.

Even more to the point, Mrs. Perdue has said that had she been governor when the problems arose at Cherry that led to its eventual decertification by the federal Centers for Medicaid and Medicare -- the leaving of a patient unattended for more than 20 hours -- she would have visited the facility immediately to ensure those issues were being addressed.

During Friday's 90-minute visit, Mrs. Perdue, accompanied by state Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Lanier Cansler, toured the hospital, met with administrators, viewed patient care units and spoke to patients and staff.

"Today I let the leaders of Cherry Hospital know that I've raised the bar for state government," Mrs. Perdue said in a written statement. "With dedicated, hands-on leadership, we can work to ensure that North Carolina's mental health institutions provide high-quality patient care.

"As Secretary Cansler said, 'we will have zero tolerance for patient abuse or mistreatment.'"

And, Cansler added, he plans to visit Cherry regularly, both to help it regain its federal certification and to make sure nothing like that happens again.

Overall, however, he said he and the governor were pleased with what they saw.

"Except for the governor and I, some of her staff and the Highway Patrol, no one knew we were coming," Cansler said. "So when we walked through the door, what we saw was the way things were."

And, he added, even as they toured the facility, there was no plan for where they were going -- that the governor simply picked units at random, allowing them to see what he believes was a true representation for how the hospital operates.

"We were impressed. There was nothing that jumped out to us that was alarming," he said.

Of course, he continued, that doesn't mean there is not still work to do.

"It's a top priority. It's costing the state a lot of money ($800,000 a month in lost federal funds) that we can't afford right now. It's high on my priorities, and on the governor's priorities, that we address any issues ... so that patients are getting the quality of care they need," he said.

What future steps that will entail, however, he was not prepared to discuss.

"I'm evaluating a number of options," he said.

He also said that while state officials would like to get a permanent replacement for Dr. Jack St. Clair who resigned effective Dec. 31, he doesn't want to "rush" the search process.

Currently the facility is being run by interim director Carl Fitch, a consultant with Compass Group, the consulting firm hired by the state to oversee the hospital after it lost its federal certification. Fitch had no comment about Friday's visit.

"I'm not going to bring somebody in until we know we have the right person," Cansler said.

And, he added, although it would be hard in the current budget situation, it might be necessary to increase the director's salary to attract the best candidates possible -- something he also extended as a possibility for the rank-and-file staff as well.

"There are a lot of good people out there doing a lot of positive things. We just to make sure everybody out there is as good," he said. "Cherry has a long, proud history, and we want to make sure that reputation is restored."

County Commissioner Steve Keen also met briefly with Mrs. Perdue at the facility.

Keen said he was "impressed" by the governor's visit especially in light of all the multitude of other issues that are demanding her attention.

"She is quite a governor to show up like that," he said

Keen, who was the only elected official present during the visit, had been near the hospital when he received a call about the governor's surprise stop.

"Her remarks were inspiring," he said. "I went there to see her and to tell her the community stands behind her. I told her we are in this together and that we love this hospital and want it to stay. She told me 'thank you.'"

The hospital, he said, is an important facet of the community since it is one of the county's major employers.

Keen said the governor has some ideas that would be discussed during upcoming commission meetings. He did not elaborate.

-- News-Argus reporter Steve Herring contributed to this report.