Earlier this month, it appeared an ongoing confrontation over management of West Virginia's two state mental hospitals had been averted. Now, it appears one of the parties - the state Department of Health and Human Resources - had not really given up the fight.
But the DHHR battle is with a Kanawha County Circuit Court judge who is on a path to hold agency officials in contempt if they do not comply with a plan they suggested.
Confused? That certainly is understandable. The situation has gone round and round for years. It is easy to see why Judge Duke Bloom has grown frustrated with the DHHR.
Last week, the agency filed a request that the state Supreme Court issue an emergency stay of three orders issued by the judge. All involve a lawsuit insisting the state is not providing adequate care to patients at the mental hospitals, in Weston and Huntington. Staff shortages at both facilities are blamed.
On June 2, Bloom ordered the DHHR to establish a new starting salary for staff at the hospitals. The intent appears to have been to provide a pay rate adequate to attract and retain an sufficient number of employees. But the DHHR did not comply.
On June 27, the judge issued another order, requiring DHHR officials to appear at a hearing to determine whether they should be held in contempt for failing to comply with other orders.
Then, on Aug. 1, it appeared the whole mess had been cleared up. In another hearing, the DHHR suggested an improvement plan whereby the state would study pay rates for mental health workers elsewhere. That would be used to set pay for employees at the two state hospitals. The idea appeared to be to adjust pay scales to ensure the state facilities could compete with the private sector.
Bloom accepted the proposal and agreed to lift his contempt proceeding if the state implemented it.
But recently, DHHR attorneys asked for a stay of all three orders, according to a published report. After Bloom said no, the state Supreme Court was asked to issue an emergency stay of his orders.
Again, it is confusing. Why would the DHHR ask for a stay of Bloom's order that it implement its own proposal? No doubt high court justices will be asking that question.
As DHHR officials have pointed out, it is not a good idea for the courts to become involved in setting pay for state employees. That should be up to the legislative and executive branches.
But the confrontation has gone on so long, with so many twists, turns and outright contradictions, that it appears the Supreme Court may have to become involved. Justices may have to do that simply to clear up the confusion.