Sen. Blakeslee tours Atascadero State Hospital, plans safety legislation

State Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, plans to push legislation in the coming months to increase staff and patient safety at state mental hospitals.

October’s strangling of Donna Gross, a psychiatric technician at Napa State Hospital, put the issue of safety at the state’s five mental hospitals in the spotlight.

Blakeslee has said he’s been working over the past six years to address such concerns at Atascadero State Hospital. But now that safety is back in the public eye, he said Friday, it is time to push legislation to help the thousands of employees who treat the state’s violent mentally ill offenders.

“They’re very cognizant of the risks,” Blakeslee said of the roughly 2,000 employees at ASH. “And I think it’s our job to watch their backs.”

Blakeslee took a tour of ASH on Friday, then met with reporters to discuss legislation he plans to reintroduce, write or support to provide more resources to treat the patients there. The majority of patients arrive from prisons, courts and county jails to get their mental illnesses stabilized before they are discharged back into the legal or prison system.

The first bill Blakeslee mentioned would make it a felony for state hospital patients to use body fluids as weapons, he said, because that exposes employees to diseases such as hepatitis. Such action is now a misdemeanor at state hospitals, he said.

The bill was introduced last year but failed to clear early review. Blakeslee is working to reintroduce it for consideration.

He also plans to write a bill that would let hospital staff decide when a patient should be medicated. It would protect staff from violent patients who can refuse the medications needed to stabilize their conditions.

Psychiatric technicians, nurses and doctors should be able to use their professional judgment to determine when patients should be medicated, he said, not federal regulators who fear patient lawsuits.

Federal reforms introduced in 2006 have contributed to the severe limitations staff have in medicating and physically restraining patients at four of the five state hospitals, including ASH.

Blakeslee also wants to “increase the hospitals’ power” to send patients back to prison who are violent and unresponsive to treatment. This could help protect employees and other patients from attacks, as well as open up more beds.

His final legislative effort is to add a high-security ward at each state hospital so the most dangerous patients are kept away from the main population. As repeat offenders continue to act out, Blakeslee said employees have told him, it’s more difficult for staff to treat the calmer patients because they mimic the response.

Blakeslee on Friday spoke with employees at the hospital as he followed a psychiatric technician, psychiatrist and security guard on their daily duties.

He witnessed everything from a psychiatric technician who calmly convinced a patient to follow the rules to a major takedown of a patient whose violent outburst triggered ASH’s internal alarms and the response of eight employees who rushed in to calm him.

“The red lights go off, and the staff gather and converge to protect the staff member that pulled the alarm,” he recalled.

He said he has a newfound respect for the employees as they are “fiercely loyal” to one another.