Health Care

Mental hospital CEO resigns

The mental hospital director who paid for a portrait of herself with money intended for patients has quit.

Patsy Christian resigned Wednesday as director of Central Regional Hospital in Butner -- the $120 million building that has had its opening delayed four times by staffing shortfalls and design flaws that could endanger patients.

Christian, 60, will remain on the state payroll as she "pursues other assignments" within the state Department of Health and Human Services, according to a news release. A department spokesman said he could provide no information about what she will be doing or whether she will continue to be paid her full $119,759 annual salary.

The resignation comes less than two weeks after The News & Observer reported that Christian had spent $572 for a discounted "executive portrait" painted by a state nurse who moonlights as an artist.

The portrait was paid for using vending machine profits from John Umstead Hospital, which Christian also supervised. State rules say such vending receipts should support activities benefiting the hospital's patients.

An SBI investigation continues, centered on whether the oil painting's purchase violated a state law forbidding employees from receiving government contracts.

The newspaper also reported that Christian's college-age son was hired twice in the past year to work at Umstead, a possible violation of a state policy against nepotism. The jobs were not advertised, and no other candidates were interviewed.

A statement released by the DHHS media office said Secretary Dempsey Benton accepted Christian's resignation "with regret."

Benton and Christian did not respond to requests for interviews Wednesday.

In a letter Benton sent to employees at Dorothea Dix Hospital and Umstead, Christian is quoted as saying she resigned because of public scrutiny. She oversaw operations at Dix and Umstead, which are to be closed when Central Regional opens.

"Since the anger and disappointment of Dix closing has now become focused on my character and family, I believe it is in the best interest of the Department that I step down from my position as CEO of Central Regional Hospital," Christian is quoted as saying. "I am proud of the tremendous amount of hard work accomplished by the CRH Executive Team over the past two years and know that they will continue to work diligently toward the opening of the new hospital."

3 key departures

Christian is the third high-ranking state mental health official to resign or retire in the past six months.

The surprise retirement of Michael Moseley, director of the state mental health division, was announced in February two days before the launch of a five-part N&O series that detailed $400 million in wasted spending, 192 cases of abuse by state workers and 82 questionable deaths of patients.

Benton allowed Moseley to continue working for the department an additional three months so he could qualify for a more lucrative retirement package.

Seth Hunt, director of Broughton Hospital in Morganton, was demoted in December, nine days after the newspaper reported that he had failed to report four patients' deaths to investigators, a violation of state law.

Hunt is still on the state payroll, collecting a $98,567 annual salary as a "special executive" assisting the director of a Morganton facility for people with developmental disabilities. His precise duties in that position remain unclear.

Christian has worked for the state since 1985. Her position as head of Central Regional is exempt from protections afforded under state personnel policies, meaning that Benton could have fired her if he had wanted to.

So far, the only DHHS administrator terminated under Benton's watch is Debbie Crane, the department's chief public information officer. Her firing was ordered by the office of Gov. Mike Easley on March 4, two days after the conclusion of The N&O's series.

Benton named Michael Lancaster, the co-director of the state Mental Health Division, to take over Christian's duties at Central Regional. There was no public indication Wednesday that Benton intends to change the state's plan to close Dix by August.

CEO's view disputed

Harold Carmel, a psychiatrist who worked as the clinical director at Umstead until 2004, said Christian's contention that anger about the closure of Dix is at the heart of her problems is not accurate.

"The concern was whether the transition to the new hospital was being competently managed and whether patients and staff would be safe," Carmel said. "It will be hard to find anyone who's going to mourn her leaving, other than some of the staff at John Umstead."

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