Staffing shortages, workflow blamed for poor Nebraska inmate health care

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LINCOLN, Neb. (KLKN) – A new document released by the Office of Inspector General of Corrections says key health care positions in the Nebraska prison system are seeing anywhere from a 17% to 100% vacancy rate.

During an interim hearing on Thursday, staffing and workflow were pointed to as the reasons for poor inmate health care within the state prison system.

Sen. Steve Lathrop called the hearing because he says the staffing of physical and mental health care providers is becoming an increasing concern.

Lawmakers on the Judiciary Committee heard testimony from the Department of Correctional Services, the assistant inspector general and many other representatives of the community.

The inspector general had released a report on Tuesday saying the death of an inmate may have been prevented if she had received the proper care.

SEE ALSO: Nebraska inmate’s death could have been prevented, Inspector General’s report says

According to Nebraska Revised Statue 83-4,145, the Corrections Department is required to provide a “community standard of health care” to all inmates.  That means inmates should expect the same level of care as what is available in the community.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska told Channel 8 that during an investigation, it found that the standard of health care in the state’s prisons was not adequate.

The inspector general said that not only is there no effective way for prison staff to monitor medical records, but that vacancies within key medical and mental health positions are reaching concerning numbers.

As of Sept. 30, health care positions within the department had vacancy rates ranging between 17% and 100%, with more positions expected to become vacant soon.

Position Positions Filled Positions Vacant Percent Vacant
Registered Nurse 26.5 26 50%
Licensed Practical Nurse 14 20 59%
Physician 4 2 33%
Dentist 2 4 66%
Dental Assistant 3 2 40%
Behavioral Health Practitioner I-IV 53.5 34.5 39%
Behavioral Health Practitioner Supervisor 10 2 17%
Psychologist 6 12 67%
Psychiatrist 0 3 100%

Interim Director Diane Sabatka-Rine represented the Department of Corrections at the hearing, just five days after starting the job.

She said current hiring efforts include various forms of advertising and hiring bonuses.

That was met with pushback from the lawmakers, who said the same efforts were ineffective under the direction of Scott Frakes.

“All of those things, all of those strategies didn’t work,” Lathrop said.  “We know the formula. It is raising pay, it is raising pay. It worked with the security staff. We have to raise pay because this, this doesn’t work.”

A majority of the committee agreed with Lathrop.  After the historic pay increase for security staff, the department saw an increase in the hiring and retention of staff members.

SEE ALSO: Gov. Ricketts, Nebraska prisons agree to historic compensation deal for workers

Sabatka-Rine said that when a position cannot be filled, it is supplemented with telehealth and part-time help from other agencies.

Justin Hubly, executive director of the Nebraska Association of Public Employees, said unfair wages will continue to drive out state employees and increase the pay gap between the state and private agencies.

He said that in the long run, the loss of employees ends up increasing the cost of labor across the board.  As demand increases for private workers, agencies raise their wages, which lures even more workers from the state.

In an anonymous survey by the inspector general, many employees said wages and work environment were decreasing employee morale.

“Agency nurses get $65 to $75 an hour to work beside me,” one employee said.  “The department could pay state nurses better and not need to use agency nurses … [and] maintain the state nurses that they have.”

Another employee acknowledged the staffing shortage, saying the department is “at a tipping point” and losing one more psychologist would “really make things go downhill.”

The committee will hold another hearing next week to further discuss the department’s implementation of an electronic health record system.

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