More than 40 percent of workers compensation claims filed by employees at the state mental health hospital in Kaneohe in recent years involved assaults on staff members, a top state official told a legislative committee on Wednesday.

Yet hospital administrators did little, if anything, to stop the attacks on state employees, staff members say.

Now a Senate committee is looking into issues at the Hawaii State Hospital and this week empowered an investigative committee that will have the authority to issue subpoenas and compel testimony.

“It’s not a witch hunt, it really is to get to the bottom of these issues,” Sen. Josh Green told Civil Beat after Wednesday’s hearing. “Some people’s lives have been shattered and we have to solve this problem so more peoples lives aren’t broken.”

Wednesday’s hearing was the second time the committee had gathered to hear from state officials and hospital employees about problems at the facility, including alleged abuse and misconduct.

Sens. Clayton Hee and Josh Green convened joint committee hearings after Hawaii News Now first reported on the attacks on state hospital workers in November.

But the extent of the problems at the mental health hospital should have been clear for years, especially to the people who oversee workplace injuries.

State Human Resources Director Barbara Krieg told the committee that staff at the Hawaii State Hospital submitted 112 workers compensation claims over the past three and a half years to help make up for lost wages due to illness or injury suffered on the job.

Forty-six of those claims — about 40 percent — came from staffers who said they were assaulted by patients while working at the hospital.

Krieg also told senators that every quarter her department’s safety division provides a report to each state agency about the number of workers compensation claims that come into her office. These reports include details about the types of injuries an employee suffered as well as dates of incidents.

“The safety office has always been concerned with looking for trends and seeing what can be done to minimize risk and increase the safety of our employees,” Krieg said. She added that it’s up to each department to resolve any problems that are creating these hazards.

Krieg didn’t provide many more specifics about the claims made by Hawaii State Hospital workers. Department of Health officials also didn’t provide any more detail about the workers compensation claims.

Agency officials did, however, provide the most up-to-date statistics about the number of assaults that occurred on staff members at the state hospital, showing there were 1,207 attacks between 2006 and 2013.

State Hospital Administrator Bill Elliot said that figure can be misleading because it includes everything from an inmate spitting on a staffer to kicking someone in the head.

“It is a very broad net that we cast when we look at assaults,” Elliot said. “A scratch on the face, by our definition, is an assault.”

Elliot did tell the senators that he believed 10 percent to 15 percent of the assaults were severe enough that he worried about long-term effects on his staff.

Many questions remain unanswered after Wednesday’s committee hearing, with perhaps the most important being: Why didn’t the state react sooner?

And issues at the state hospital go much deeper than the assaults. There are now allegations of nepotism, overtime abuse and retaliation against workers who speak out about conditions at the facility.

Injured workers have also said they have struggled to get money through the state workers compensation system as well as been harassed by employees handling those claims.

Several state hospital employees showed up at Wednesday’s hearing to testify about the attacks as well as the fallout from the assaults, including living with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Honolulu attorney Michael Green, who is known for taking on some of the most high-profile litigation in the state, also attended the hearing as a representative of the employees.

But much of the questioning Wednesday was again focused on Elliott and State Hospital Medical Director Bill Sheehan.

Hee and other senators pushed the administrators to provide detail about operations at the state hospital, from how they handle hiring employees and tracking down escapees to what they would change to protect workers from potentially dangerous patients who are coming to the facility through the criminal justice system.

There was also discussion about the feasibility of creating a new facility, called a forensic hospital, that would allow for increased security as well as allow for the medication of certain patients who are unruly.

What became increasingly clear during Wednesday’s discussion is that Hee and Green have no intention of letting up.

On Tuesday, the Senate passed a resolution to form an official investigative committee to explore the problems at the Hawaii State Hospital.

Hee and Green will sit on the committee along with other senators who have yet to be appointed.

The committee will have subpoena powers, which will be used to bring in state officials who so far have avoided responding to the senators’ questions. Testimony will also be under oath.

Green said after Wednesday’s hearing that he hoped the state would have acknowledged and fixed the issues at the mental health hospital before the Senate formed an investigative committee.

He also acknowledged that he won’t limit the scope of the investigative hearings, saying that he wants to “turn over some rocks” and see what’s there.

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