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State agency appeals judge’s pay raise directive

CHARLESTON (AP) — The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources is appealing a judge’s directive to give pay raises to some workers at the state’s two psychiatric hospitals, arguing that it has fulfilled a similar order issued in 2009.

The directive is part of an order issued June 2 by Kanawha County Circuit Court Judge Duke Bloom in an ongoing case centering on the treatment of mental health patients.

Bloom directed the DHHR to immediately implement a special starting salary for new health service workers at William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital in Weston and Mildred Mitchell-Bateman Hospital in Huntington. Workers hired or promoted since January 2103 must be retroactively compensated.

The DHHR appealed the directive to the West Virginia Supreme Court earlier this month. The appeal said the directive is “arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion” because the DHHR has fulfilled Bloom’s 2009 order, The Charleston Gazette reported Thursday.

“This issue is separate from the merits of the rest of the action because it is DHHR’s position that the pay rate increase was completed as agreed by the parties, and the controversy concluded at that time,” Victoria Jones, commissioner for the Bureau of Behavioral Health and Health Facilities, told the newspaper. “In our government, it is the role of the legislative branch to appropriate funding for the other two branches of government.”

She said an order issued by Bloom on April 25, 2012, recognized that DHHR was complying with the 2009 order.

“However, in the June 2, 2014 order, it appears that the Court is interpreting the pay increase contemplated by the 2009 agreed order so that additional pay increases would continue beyond the one-time appropriation by the Legislature. DHHR does not share this interpretation,” Jones said.

The appeal also argued that other aspects of the case are unresolved, including a plan to reduce staff vacancies, discontinue mandatory overtime and stop using temporary contract employees.

“Given the extreme staffing shortages at the two state hospitals, and the effect that those shortages have on patient care, (the) petitioners are disappointed that the Bureau is choosing to appeal the implementation of a small increase in direct care starting salaries that it agreed to years ago, instead of directing its efforts toward recruiting and retaining direct care staff,” Lydia Milnes, an attorney for Mountain State Justice, told the newspaper.

Mountain State Justice represents employees and patients at both hospitals.

The appeal DHHR’s also said the directive violates the collateral order doctrine because Bloom ordered immediate implementation of the salary increases, making the directive final. The doctrine makes orders subject to appeal if they are final in a case that is ongoing.

On June 27, Bloom found the DHHR in contempt for failing to comply with previous orders. A show-cause hearing is set for Aug. 1.

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