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Minnesota psychiatric hospital sees staff turmoil

MINNEAPOLIS - Minnesota's only hospital for mentally ill and dangerous patients is in turmoil. Most of the experienced psychiatric staff have either quit or been fired at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. They include six psychiatrist...

MINNEAPOLIS - Minnesota's only hospital for mentally ill and dangerous patients is in turmoil.

Most of the experienced psychiatric staff have either quit or been fired at the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter. They include six psychiatrists who were treating more than 375 patients. They resigned in protest of what they consider the combative style of the new administrator. They've been temporarily replaced by Department of Human Services psychiatrists who are not familiar with the patients, it said.

Human Services Commissioner Lucinda Jesson has ordered an investigation into whether the new administrator, David Proffitt, has created a hostile workplace in his first four months on the job at a facility where department investigators described the workplace culture in 2010 as chaotic, dangerous and dysfunctional.

Proffitt said he was not aware that any of his actions might be considered hostile or inappropriate. "From my perspective, this work is complex and intense. (But) anything that's alleged needs to get looked at," he said.

He said he could not comment on why the psychiatrists left.

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"We are required to change our practices, and the vast majority of staff are enthusiastic in doing so," Proffitt said. "Some (psychiatrists) may decide they don't want to change, but that doesn't diminish the respect I have for them."

In December, the hospital was fined $2,200 - the most possible under state law - and its license placed on conditional probation for two years, partly because of serious maltreatment of two patients. Jesson also directed Deputy Commissioner Anne Barry to spend at least one day a week at the hospital to work with Proffitt and monitor patient care and the use of physical restraints or seclusion.

"Putting the hospital on conditional license for two years is as serious a consequence as this agency has faced," Barry said. "We face an enormous task."

The departing psychiatrists include Dr. Jennifer Service, a Harvard-trained psychiatrist who served as the statewide forensics medical services director for eight years, and Dr. John Wermager, the hospital's director of psychiatry. Service also was responsible for the care of more than 145 mentally ill and dangerous patients who live in communities on provisional discharge.

Proffitt was hired in September amid questions over whether top administrators adequately vetted him. When he ran a hospital for the mentally ill in Maine, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the facility for failing to provide a safe workplace and found more than 75 staff injuries not properly documented. Jesson's assistant commissioner, Maureen O'Connell, has acknowledged that she didn't tell Jesson about Proffitt's problems in Maine before hiring him.

Proffitt's mandate at St. Peter is to retrain staff to use more behavioral tools to help patients modify their actions and sharply cut the use of restraints, handcuffs and seclusion. That directive has resulted in a backlash, the newspaper reported.

Dr. Michael Harlow, who was fired by Proffitt in December, said he has retained an employment attorney.

"The doctors feel horribly sad about all this. It was a good psychiatric team; you couldn't ask for a better group. Our motto was 'Hope and Recovery,' but the only thing Proffitt has promoted is fear and uncertainty," said Harlow, who now works at Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis.

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Proffitt said he believes his workplace demeanor has not been confrontational.

"This is what I find in life: Reality is a perception, and I strive to be principle-centered, transparent," Proffitt said.

Related Topics: HEALTH
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