The state Department of Health is investigating conditions at the hospital’s psychiatric emergency room at Erie County Medical Center after a video was released this week focusing on staffing challenges in the unit that went viral, prompting reactions from across the country.
“The department has opened an investigation into this matter,” health department spokeswoman Monica Pomeroy said in a statement Friday afternoon. “As this is an ongoing investigation, the Department is unable to comment further at this time.”
In the video posted on TikTok by the ECMC nurses union account, staff members appear to confront ECMC administrators, asking if there is a staffing plan for the week. One woman, who identified herself in the video as a registered nurse, said she cared for 50 patients in one shift.
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The video then shows union members trying to track down administrators to get answers about staffing for the department, known as CPEP, or the Comprehensive Emergency Psychiatric Program.
CPEP is the only behavioral health emergency department in the region, except for a much smaller unit at Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center.
Those familiar with it say it has long been a harrowing experience for patients and staff, but that conditions have worsened as the pandemic has spread this year and staff ranks have thinned.
The Buffalo News has interviewed several patients who have been in the main waiting room, including two this year, as well as family members, mental health counselors and mental health advocates.
All paint a chilling portrait of what they’ve heard from clients or loved ones—or experienced firsthand.
Dozens of patients in crisis have been crammed into the same holding room, sometimes for several days, while they wait to be evaluated by a psychiatrist and given a treatment plan, they say.
“It’s like a prison cell, but scarier,” said Chris Martosch of Hamburg, who said he was taken to CPEP in 2019 after a suicide attempt. “It’s like a cattle room. You go in there, you don’t know who’s in charge of anything, and there’s no privacy.”
The staff seems overwhelmed, patients and family members told The Buffalo News. Anxious family members unable to see their loved ones struggle to get updates on their condition.
“I think the staff is trying to do the best they can, but this is the only game left,” Martos said.
In a statement Friday, the hospital said, “Due to our inability to discharge patients to state-supported programs, coupled with inadequate Medicaid reimbursements, ECMC continues to experience high patient volume challenges in our Comprehensive Emergency Psychiatric Program (CPEP).”
ECMC’s 24/7 CPEP program is one of the largest in the state, serving adults, children and adolescents in crisis from an entire floor in the Center for Outpatient Behavioral Health Care. Over the past several years, CPEP has seen an average of about 10,000 to 11,000 patients per year. ECMC spokesman Peter Cutler said CPEP has 180 employees.
“We are trying to adjust the staffing at CPEP,” one nurse says in the TikTok video, noting that a top administrator has been on vacation amid high staffing demand.
The video was released as the New York State Nurses Association negotiates a new contract for the more than 1,300 registered nurses at ECMC. As has been the case in previous high-stakes health care negotiations, improving staffing and strengthening efforts to recruit and retain nurses has taken center stage in the talks.
“If we don’t take these steps and this opportunity in time to transform the profession, it will never happen,” said Steve Bailey, a registered nurse at ECMC’s Terrace View Long-Term Care Center and regional director of the Western New York Medical Association. sisters. “We will emerge from this crisis new and improved.”
The viral video has once again brought attention to the burning issue of recruitment, especially in a program like CPEP, which is in high demand as the need for mental health services has skyrocketed since the pandemic.
In its statement, ECMC said it is working with union representatives to resolve challenges at CPEP, an effort that includes filling 12 current open nursing positions.
The hospital said there are seven new CPEP nurses starting work on the unit “with more nurses to join soon”.
“We will be temporarily recruiting nurses from travel agencies to fill these other vacancies until the remaining nurses complete their orientation and begin work at CPEP,” ECMC said. “To date, we have been in ongoing conversations with our NYSNA representatives; Unfortunately, some misinformation has been spread on this topic.”
Steve Bailey, a registered nurse at ECMC’s Terrace View Long-Term Care Center and regional director of the Western New York Nurses Association, said in a statement Friday that ECMC nurses are deeply concerned about staffing shortages in the CPEP unit and throughout the hospital.
“We continue to be frustrated by the lack of urgency on the part of management and the lack of a real plan to recruit and retain the nurses we need to provide safe patient care,” Bailey said. “As nurses, we are committed to providing safe and quality care for every patient. At this point, we’re sending an SOS to management that we need nurses and resources to be able to do our best for our patients – and we need them now.”