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NASHVILLE, TN (WSMV) -
A state committee sent a strong warning to employees of state mental institutions: if you neglect or abuse patients, you could be fired on the spot without any chance to appeal.
The state finance, ways and means committee approved an amendment to a bill that would make workers at state mental institutions who care for patients "at will" employees, instead of their current status of civil service employees.
Sen. Doug Henry, D-Nashville, introduced the amendment following an ongoing Channel 4 I-Team investigation that revealed instances of patient mistreatment and neglect at the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute.
Our investigation also found nurses accused of serious mistakes allowed to keep their jobs and only given suspensions, including a nurse who dumped a bucket of water on a mentally ill patient's head, another nurse who was found with her hands on a patient's neck and shoulders and another nurse accused of letting a patient fondle her and admitted to kissing him.
The Channel 4 I-Team also found a case of a grisly suicide, where a patient took his own life because he wasn't being monitored.
Henry said what the I-Team uncovered is proof that the state must have greater powers to fire employees who neglect or mistreat patients.
"When you talk about helpless people, and folks who have direct charge of their person, it seems to me that if they don't do right, management should be able to dismiss them on the spot," Henry said during the committee hearing
Former contract employees told the Channel 4 I-Team it's well known in the institute that if you're a state civil service employee, it's hard to get fired.
"Civil service should not be in that type of facility, because in nursing care, the patient lives are too valuable," said Derwin Powell, a former contract nurse at the institute.
After Henry learned what the Channel 4 I-Team uncovered, he called the commissioner of mental health into his office.
Henry said the commissioner wanted to fire all the employees we exposed, but couldn't because of civil service rules protecting their employment.
So Henry drafted an amendment to the bill, aiming to revamp the state's civil service rules. That amendment would make all state employees providing patient care in institutions "at will" employees, who could be fired for a single violation of neglect or mistreatment of patients.
"If someone is mistreated, and they (the employee) are in direct control of that patient, I don't have a great deal of patience with them," said Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville.
Grant Lawrence, spokesman for the state department of mental health, said in a statement to the Channel 4 I-Team:
"The Tennessee Department of Mental Health supports the Administration's T.E.A.M. Act and recognizes it as an effort to recruit, retain and reward the best and brightest employees to serve Tennessee taxpayers in a customer-focused, efficient and effective way."
Henry's amendment passed and is now attached to the bill, calling for a revamp of the state's civil service rules.
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