In the wake of a patient death, a global pandemic, staffing shortages and other controversies, Eric Carpenter has a lot to overcome as Eastern State Hospital’s new chief executive officer.
Carpenter, 65, started early last month. That’s nearly a year after the previous CEO, Mark Kettner, resigned when an investigation found his administration mishandled domestic violence allegations against a former nurse now charged with murder.
As a child growing up in Alabama, Carpenter watched the dedication of his mother, Annie, to her job as a mental health worker, he said.
Toward the end of his high school career, his mother mentioned an opening at the Alabama Department of Mental Health where she worked, Carpenter recalled.
The facility’s superintendent gave him a tour and welcomed him, Carpenter said.
“It just left an indelible impression upon me,” Carpenter said. “I knew then that I was either going to volunteer or make that part of my profession.”
He worked as a mental health technician for more than a decade before pursing a bachelor’s degree in health services administration. He later earned a master’s degree in health services and public health administration from Roosevelt University in Illinois. Carpenter has since served in various executive leadership roles for a number of health care organizations.
After years of thinking about moving to Washington state, the job at Eastern was a perfect fit, Carpenter said.
Carpenter acknowledges he has his work cut out for him. In April, Eastern State received notice from The Joint Commission, a nonprofit that accredits health institutions, that its staffing levels were dangerously low, according to the Seattle Times.
Staff at both Eastern and Western State Hospitals submitted 400 signatures to management that same month, calling for safer working conditions and fair compensation, among other improvements. Local leaders from the Washington Federation of State Employees, which helped organize the petition, did not respond request for comment.
The base hourly salary for a nurse at the hospital is listed as $32.70 an hour, compared to similar behavioral health nursing positions in the area that advertise hourly rates of $35 or $40, according to online job postings.
While members of the Washington Federation of State Employees will get at least a 3.25% wage increase at the beginning of July, Carpenter hopes for additional raises in the future.
Since the report, the hospital has hired more than 100 employees through a staffing agency, Carpenter said. The increase in temporary staff buys the hospital time to improve their recruitment and retention rates, Carpenter said.
As of last week, the hospital was just over 60% full with 232 patients. The facility’s maximum capacity is 367 patients.
The hospital submitted documentation to the commission showing their progress and administrators are hopeful the response will be positive, Carpenter said.
While Carpenter was “cautious” to name specific goals for his first few months at the hospital, “overall my pursuit is going to be to improve and enhance our safety and security,” he said.
Safety and security have been a concern at the West Plains facility as recently as this spring.
In March, patient Martay Ellis was arrested and charged with murder after police say he attacked Daniel J. Zellmer, killing him.
Police say a former nurse, Joshua Phillips, 41, stabbed and killed his ex-girlfriend, Kassie Dewey, to death in April 2021, just days after she ended their relationship. Phillips also stabbed Dewey’s 5-year-old daughter, Lilly, police said.
The two began dating while they were coworkers at Eastern State Hospital. There were multiple prior complaints to the hospital over issues with Phillips, but nothing was done to protect the women involved, according to an internal review obtained by The Inlander.
Not only have there been complaints of patient-on-patient violence and staff-on-staff violence, but also patient-on-staff violence.
In 2020, a patient was arrested after police say he tried to strangle a hospital staff member.
Carpenter plans to provide all staff with psychological safety training to help employees understand who they are, how they engage people and “giving people a voice and letting people be able to talk about what their concerns are,” he said.
He also plans to rework the hospital’s committee structure to give lower-level staff more representation and better avenues for feedback, Carpenter said.
“We will continue to survey staff periodically about their thoughts about safety in their particular area and also hospitalwide,” Carpenter said.
Carpenter also hopes to improve the patient experience by focusing on engaging patients when they first arrive.
“It’s really about engaging the patient the moment that they come in and making them feel respected and helping them through their wellness and recovery,” Carpenter said. “If people have that sense of knowing that you’re there to help them, to assist them, they’re less likely to be assertive or assaultive toward you.”
As safety improves, Carpenter hopes the reputation of the hospital will begin to shift and more people will see how rewarding working in psychiatric care can be, he said.
“What we hope to do is really tell our story about the value of working at a state hospital,” Carpenter said. “The reward you get from helping someone, who we receive often at their very worst.”