CONTROL OVER St. Elizabeths Hospital formally shifted from the federal government to the D.C. government this past week. Ceremonies, bus tours and a mental health center open house marked the occasion. D.C. Council members Betty Ann Kane and Wilhelmina Rolark said that this was the time to discussthe fate of the hospital's west campus. Buttheir attention is needed on more urgent mat-ters affecting the city's mental health care system.
First, there is a severe shortage of psychiatric nurses, the "backbone of the system," according to Dr. Robert A. Washington, the city's acting mental health services commissioner. City officials are taking over St. Elizabeths lacking 100 of the nurses needed to supply quality 24-hour care to patients. That's a 20 percent vacancy rate, based on an authorized nursing staff of 500. It's a local manifestation of a national shortage of experienced nurses. St. Elizabeths may also fall below the nurse/patient certification ratio needed to qualify for Medicaid and Medicare payment reimbursements.
Dr. Washington also says that there is "no full range of mental health services" available here for D.C. children. Some 250 youths, separated from family and friends, have been sent to facilities in other parts of the country. City officials want to open residential sites with 24-hour supervision here in the city for 75 such youths. Another 47 group homes will be needed over the next four years to take in deinstitutionalized patients from St. Elizabeths.
There may be a way to persuade neighborhoods that these group homes are important resources and pose no threat to those living nearby, but the city government is making only slow progress in finding it. With the hospital understaffed and the number of group homes inadequate, there are some pretty urgent questions that confront the city as it takes over St. Elizabeths. The future use of the real estate isn't one of the