Editorial: Time is not on the side of workers and safety at ASH

Lawmaking is, by its nature, a slow and deliberate process.

That’s as it should be. Too often, legislation passed to cure one ill creates an entirely new set of problems.

But how long do the employees of state mental hospitals — including Atascadero State Hospital — have to wait for legislation that will better protect them?

We raise the question in the wake of the recent beating of a female psychiatric technician by a patient at Atascadero State Hospital. The suspect — who had previously threatened the victim — had been designated for transfer back to state prison.

And there’s the problem: That process of “repatriation” to prison can drag on for months, according to state Sen. Sam Blakeslee.

He’s among the lawmakers working on bills to make the state’s mental hospitals safer — an effort that became even more intense after a Napa hospital employee was killed by a patient last fall.

There has been some progress:

Just last week, the governor signed a bill that makes it a crime to smuggle contraband to patients.

A bill that streamlines the process of ordering involuntarily medication of certain patients is expected to come up for a vote this week.

Through a pilot project, a treatment unit with additional security is being created at ASH.

The lifting of a hiring freeze allowed for some additional staffing at some hospitals.

Yet a bill that could have prevented the recent attack at ASH has been in legislative limbo.Early last year, Democratic Sen. Noreen Evans, who represents Napa, introduced legislation that would have speeded the process of transferring violent patients back to state prisons. It also called for risk assessments of inmates who were to be transferred from prisons to mental hospitals.

It failed to advance. Among other objections, state Department of Corrections officials said they didn’t have the staff or the funding to handle the risk assessments or the return of patients to their custody. There also were concerns from mental health advocacy groups who wanted to ensure patients’ rights were protected.

Those are legitimate concerns — but so is the safety of employees at ASH and other mental hospitals.

Blakeslee has, to his credit, renewed calls for legislation to streamline the return of violent patients to prisons.

Late Friday afternoon, his office was working with Evans to try to revive the earlier bill and amend it to improve chances of passage.

He hopes it can come up for a vote before the legislative session ends Friday, but if the last-minute effort fails, Blakeslee vows to introduce the bill first thing next year.

We just hope that’s not too late.

Bottom line: Violent prison inmates who have mental health issues must be housed in appropriately secure settings — for their safety, the safety of other inmates and the safety of staff.

If legislation is required to ensure that, we must demand a bipartisan effort to get it done without further delay.