The Oregon State Hospital on Friday, May 28, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

An advisory panel to the Oregon State Hospital says it was blind-sided by the hospital’s move to request help from the National Guard to help relieve a severe staffing shortage.

In a June 7 letter to hospital Superintendent Dolly Matteucci, the Oregon State Hospital Advisory Board said they found out that the staffing crisis had escalated from news accounts and concerned citizens.

DOCUMENT: Letter from Oregon State Hospital Advisory Board.

“As Board members, we are expected to fulfill our charge, which includes making recommendations to the hospital regarding administrative rules, policies, procedures, and hospital protocols related to patients' safety, security, and care,” said the letter. “We were not allowed to do that in this instance.”

The 16-member board is comprised of advocates, health care professionals, members of the public, employees and consumers of mental health services. It meets six times a year and advises the superintendent, Oregon Health Authority director and legislators on the care and safety of patients.

The Salem psychiatric hospital cares for some of the state’s most mentally ill people. The pandemic has created a dire staffing shortage in the hospital, raising concerns about safety and patient care. Last week, the hospital and the Oregon Military Department announced that 30 National Guard members would begin training to work in the hospital. One-third of the hospital’s nursing staff have been on Covid-related leave hospital officials have said in recent weeks.

According to the letter, the board received an update from Matteucci at its May 20 meeting on the staffing shortage and how she was asking hospital managers and supervisors to sign up for weekend shifts. The board also received another email update on May 27 from Matteucci, according to the letter. Neither communication mentioned that the hospital was close to requesting support from the National Guard, the letter said. 

The letter states that the board appreciates the challenges the pandemic has created for the hospital and staff. But the board said the call for the National Guard raises unanswered questions

The letter asked for an update on the expected return of staff, the average amount of time taken off by department, tracking of staff turnover and qualification of National Guard members to work in a psychiatric hospital. It also asked what the hospital is doing to address increased violence in the hospital and how guard members will support the effort.

Rebeka Gipson-King, Oregon State Hospital spokeswoman, said in an email that hospital administration values its relationship with the board. She said the hospital understands their frustration but it’s not always possible to notify them of major decisions. 

“However, after the meeting, we quickly realized we also needed to ask for additional help, officially requesting services from the National Guard, knowing the amount of time it would take to train and onboard any resources they were able to provide,” Gipson-King said in her response. “The Board provides an important oversight role for the hospital, and we continue to partner with them significant hospital issues. We’ll be sure to provide thoughtful, comprehensive responses to all of the questions in their letter.”

Ben Morris, communications director for SEIU 503, pointed to a section of the letter expressing concern about the staffing levels at the hospital. The letter states that “staffing or, rather, lack of staffing is not a new issue.” It said it will continue to be an issue after the current emergency and called for a long-term solution.

“We completely agree,” said Morris, whose union represents hospital staff, in an email. “The current situation is not just about COVID leave. We need the legislature to pass a budget for the State Hospital that actually reflects its staffing needs.” 

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM - We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!