08/13/09 — DHHS secretary visits Cherry

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DHHS secretary visits Cherry

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 13, 2009 1:46 PM

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Lanier Cansler, right, secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, greets Cherry Hospital employees Barbara Galloway, left, and Rayne Caudill, center, during a visit on Wednesday.

It's time to raise morale and recognize the positive efforts going on at Cherry Hospital, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Lanier Cansler told Cherry staff members during a visit to the hospital Wednesday.

The morning visit was divided between meeting with officials and touring one of the treatment units, but was highlighted by a meet and greet with employees in the hospital chapel.

"I have come because I wanted to say thank you for all you have done and will be doing to continue to make Cherry a great place, serving the citizens of eastern North Carolina," Cansler said.

The past year has been a tumultuous time for the hospital, which lost its federal Medicaid funding a year ago. A new director, Phillip Cook, was hired in late March and prior to that, Gov. Perdue appointed Cansler to the role of secretary in January.

After numerous surveys and site visits, Cherry's Medicaid status was reinstated last month.

Cansler's presence reflects a new direction, Cook said.

"I was very pleased to get a call from Mr. Cansler's office that he wanted to come visit," he said. "He wants to see us grow and develop. He certainly is going to be behind us, supporting us as we move forward."

There is much to be proud of at Cherry Hospital, Cansler pointed out -- a rich heritage in the past, a bright future still ahead. And despite "morale problems" often cited, Cansler suggested that "99.9 percent of the time things are positive, but we don't always get recognized for that."

Plans for the new facility are still on schedule, with the groundbreaking and expansion coming in the near future. First, though, there will be the state's budget to contend with.

"When we finally begin building the facility, the hope is the facility will meet the needs for the next 50 years, that we don't build it to meet the budget but to meet the needs," Cansler said.

The state stands behind Cherry, the secretary said, and expects it will be "a leader in the state."

While certification has been reinstated, Cook said there is still work to be done.

"We're not resting on our laurels," he told the staff. "Our job is to move forward. Our expectations need to be raised for ourselves. We have a great heritage, and a great responsibility to 38 counties and citizens in eastern North Carolina."

In a separate interview with the News-Argus, Cansler addressed some of his impressions about the hospital.

Public perception has admittedly long been a problem, but is not unique to Cherry, he said.

"To some degree across the department, we're somewhat tied in the past trying to do things the way we have always done them," he said. "We are in a changing world, changing needs, changing expectations, so we have really got to identify where our weaknesses are, to change our culture, change the way we do things, to proactively meet the needs of the future.

"Whenever you have operated in a certain way for a period of time, not everybody's going to be happy with the changes that take place. I'm trying to send a message very clearly that we are a team. Our goal would be to be the very best we can be. Sometimes that means change."

One of the problems has been that most of the state's facilities have operated autonomously for years, Cansler said.

"There's certainly standards that we want to make sure that everybody follows," he said. Over the next two years, he anticipates taking a two-prong approach to the situation -- working in the community and focusing on long-term chronic care.

An example of a short-term care problem is the fact that an estimated 40 percent of people in psychiatric hospitals are there less than seven days, he explained.

"Our psychiatric hospitals should not be dealing with people that in crisis could be put on the proper medications and released in a short period of time," he said. "It's difficult when someone four counties over is in crisis, they bring them to Cherry Hospital, get them stable and ready to send them home," he said.

The hope would be to contract with local community hospitals, setting up an effective care plan for such situations. Ideally, hospitals could handle short-term issues -- treatment and stabilization -- thus preventing a "disconnect," Cansler said.

"Over the last 15 years we have lost psychiatric beds in local hospitals across the state," he said. "Our goal is to contract to have the beds, work with the LMEs (Local Management Entities), get the university system to train and community colleges to train other workers in the mental health arena and our facilities."

In the midst of budgetary concerns, the state recently announced an additional $12 million available for hospital beds, Cansler said.

"We're trying to figure out how we can work smarter," he said. By having more hospital beds in local hospitals, perhaps patients could be treated in the short-term, he added. "We really want to focus on the patients and what they need."

With Cherry's federal funding status regained, there are several efforts on the horizon, the secretary said.

"One of them is we're going to strengthen the financial information of the hospital, strengthen our educational program," he said. "We have talked about the issues of a zero tolerance policy. We also have to have employees as part of this. We have got to make sure every staff member in our facilities has the proper training and knowledge."

Being able to attract and retain quality employees is also vital, he said, as well as addressing the rate of pay.

"It is somewhat of a culture change," he said. "(But) the people here at Cherry Hospital are a dedicated group of folks. I think they're a great team (and) we're all part of the same team."