File photo.

The Humboldt-Del Norte Medical Society, a professional organization of about 200 physicians, sent a letter to the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors earlier this month sounding the alarm about conditions at the Mental Health Branch of Humboldt County’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The Mental Health Branch had a well-publicized exodus of doctors and nurses earlier this year, with employees decrying gross mismanagement, low worker morale and unsafe conditions for staff and patients. In a Nov. 5 letter to county supervisors (link below), Humboldt-Del Norte Medical Society President Dr. John Nelson says management’s response has been insufficient, and the crisis continues.

“We have seen little in the way of definable progress,” Nelson says, claiming that the administration hasn’t acknowledged the severity of the problems, which would “take pages of written reports” to communicate. “Initial administrative reaction to our prior letter [sent last spring] was one of denial.”

Speaking on behalf of the medical society, Nelson says the problems at Mental Health deserve to be investigated by the Grand Jury, since the county’s own response has been “discouraging.” He goes on to describe a top-down, military-like administrative style and says frontline medical staff should be given more authority and flexibility.

Earlier this week, of course, the county announced the hiring of a new director for the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Thirty-two-year-old Kristin Brinks will replace longtime director Phillip Crandall, whose retirement is scheduled to take effect at the end of January. While some critics of the department have expressed hope about the new hire, Nelson describes deep-seated issues, saying there is “a pervasive culture of bureaucratic indifference to the input of employees and the community that is toxic … .”

Back in March, DHHS announced that it was hiring an outside medical staffing firm, Traditions Behavioral Health, to help fill the staffing holes left by the departure of many doctors and nurses over a relatively short period. That firm continues its recruiting efforts, but insiders tell the Outpost that Mental Health Branch employees, including several new hires, continue to leave. Nelson addresses this in his letter.

“Outpatient services are a shell of what they used to be,” it reads. And while salaries have been raised in an effort to attract and retain more qualified staff, “more medical staff are leaving for reasons not related to pay or location. The culture is not changing.” Nelson says attention needs to be paid specifically to the branch’s Alcohol and Other Drugs program, and there should be improved coordination with law enforcement. 

The Outpost reached out to DHHS for a response, and after some scheduling conflicts we agreed to meet with management next week to discuss the issues raised by the medical society.

Nelson, however, is calling for a broader discussion of these issues. “There should be a public hearing on the state of Mental Health before the Board of Supervisors in the near future,” he says.