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DHS news release

This guest opinion was published Nov. 24, 2005, by the Salem Statesman Journal.


Dedicated state hospital workers improve lives


By Joe Thurman and Bob Nikkel



Driving through Oregon State Hospital's campus on Salem's Center Street N.E., you might wonder about the lives of the 700 patients who live there.


Or why nearly 1,200 of your friends and neighbors choose to work in the West Coast's oldest psychiatric hospital despite difficult conditions.


For a partial answer, consider one patient's story: He came onto the ward after years of incarceration, diabetic, unable to read or write, heavily tattooed, and posing a continual threat of assault.


After effective psychiatric treatment, today he is living in a community group home, learning to read and write, getting his tattoos removed, managing his diabetes, showing that even the most challenging patients can succeed.


This illustrates the kind of results that the staff's high-quality care delivers, and the satisfaction that keeps staff who could often work elsewhere for more money in newer surroundings with greater safety.


In a combative age when people often expect unions to put up barriers, and management not to collaborate with labor, your state hospital offers a refreshing contrast.


As a union president and a state manager, you might expect us to disagree. We sometimes do. But we consistently agree to work vigorously to strengthen Oregon's care of people with mental illness, who come to us from every strata of society.


This matters because you want tax dollars to produce good results for real people. At the state hospital, they do. This matters because patients at the hospital choose mental illness no more than a cancer patient chooses her disease.


Labor likes seeing Superintendent Marvin Fickle, M.D., walking the campus, visiting wards, keeping an open door, taking weekend duty shifts, even working alongside staff for 10 weeks this year as the staff physician on a patient ward.


Hospital labor and management representatives meet seven times a month. At monthly advisory council meetings, Dr. Fickle hears frank talk from patients, staff and managers.


Management appreciates that labor constructively recommends operating improvements, is at the forefront of asking employees for zero tolerance for abuse, and actively promotes public understanding of the needs of people with mental illness.


At one meeting to tell legislators about hospital conditions, for example, 40 union members participated on their own time. Union representatives also supported the hospital by meeting with the governor and testifying before legislative committees.


Unions are participating in planning for a new hospital, for which recommendations are expected for February. Union representatives participate in panels that interview prospective new employees.


Because of labor's support, more Oregonians than ever are aware of the hospital's needs: It many employees short of comparable psychiatric hospitals elsewhere. Some staff members work up to four overtime shifts a week, too often involuntarily. The hospital itself is an 1840s design that does not lend itself to modern treatment.


Talented and dedicated people work here because they know they can make a difference in someone's life. And they believe in the future.


Joe Thurman, a registered nurse, is president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees local 3295 at Oregon State Hospital. Bob Nikkel is administrator of the Office of Mental Health and Addiction Services in the Oregon Department of Human Services. Lew Cronenberg, president of the hospital's SEIU local, also signed this guest opinion.