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ARPA funds help mental health hospitals with staffing

The Alabama Department of Mental Health has used recent COVID-19 relief funds to boost staffing — and potentially avoid a lawsuit.

The department received $34 million in two rounds of American Rescue Plan Act funding, Commissioner Kim Boswell told a legislative oversight committee recently.  About $7 million of that has been used to hire rapid staffing agencies to help with “a workforce crisis like we’ve never seen before.” 

The state has three mental health hospitals, all of them in Tuscaloosa. Last year, Boswell said staffing shortages were significantly worsened during the pandemic. Boswell had previously said a lack of staff in 2022 had halted admissions at one hospital and shuttered a unit at another. 

Earlier this year, ADMH received a demand letter, which can precede a lawsuit, from the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program over facility staffing.

“We have been able to work with them and are in discussions around a settlement agreement and convinced that we will not be entering a lawsuit with ADAP,” Boswell told lawmakers. “So I want you to know that money made a huge difference in the lives of the people we serve and it also helped us avoid a potential lawsuit because of our staffing at our facilities in Tuscaloosa.”

Later, ADMH spokeswoman Malissa Valdes told ADN the pending settlement agreement is related to the Taylor Hardin Secure Medical Facility, which serves the criminally committed, and staffing is one of the topics within it.

James Tucker, director of ADAP, said the organization had some “pretty profound” concerns about how staffing shortages were impacting quality of care, safety and treatment planning.

He told Alabama Daily News talks with ADMH are progressing. 

“We are encouraged, but we don’t have a resolution yet,” Tucker said. “We hope that we will get there.” 

Valdes said the staffing situation within ADMH has markedly improved over the course of the past year.  

“However, staffing numbers have not returned to pre-COVID levels,” she said. “The facilities continue to use temporary staffing agencies to supplement vacant direct care positions among nurses and mental health workers.”

To try to boost staffing, the department is now working with Shelton State Community College on a mental health technician training course.

“(Department employees) have to be prepared in many ways,” Valdes said. “We’re working with a population that has many needs.

“…We’re focusing on recruitment and retention.” 

Other ARPA spending this year by ADMH included:

$6 million for a 30-bed diversion unit that was needed when the state hospitals weren’t admitting new patients during the pandemic:

$5 million for provider reimbursements;

$5 million for pediatric crisis services in Huntsville.

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