Gov. Corzine met with employees at the troubled Ancora Psychiatric Hospital yesterday before announcing a package of reforms being implemented there.
Primarily, the changes are geared toward reducing overcrowding and restructuring patient care at the state-run hospital, which has suffered through a number of high-profile patient escapes and deaths in recent years.
"It's been a tough period for people who care deeply about the patients being served," Corzine said. "I take this issue of how we deal with our mental health delivery system seriously."
This was the governor's third visit to Ancora in about 15 months.
Jennifer Velez, the commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, which oversees Ancora, said the December escape and subsequent suicide of a patient "intensified the need to look" at reforms.
She said the hospital has been "rightly criticized" for that incident and others, but stressed "there's an awful lot of good happening here."
The patient who escaped, DeWitt Crandell Jr., stabbed his parents to death in 1996. He wandered off the grounds during unsupervised, court-approved recreation time.
Two hours later, he was found naked, scratched and bleeding near Hammonton. The next morning, Crandell hanged himself at Ancora with a bedsheet despite a 24-hour watch order.
Within days, Ancora's chief executive officer and a security guard were removed from their jobs.
At least six patients have died at Ancora since July 2006, including two who were killed by fellow patients.
Asked how many patients in total have died recently, Velez answered, "Too many."
The escapes of Crandell and double murderer William Enman have been particularly troubling to Ancora's neighbors in a residential area of Winslow Township.
Enman also walked away from the hospital during court-approved recreation in September. After a three-day search, he was discovered on hospital grounds.
Acting Ancora CEO Greg Roberts said he has met with a number of community groups since then and security has been improved at the hospital, including more police and guards, new digital surveillance cameras and a new "code gray" procedure for when a patient goes missing.
As part of the reforms, Ancora's management will be restructured to create more "accountability and transparency," officials said.
Patient care will be separated into two tracks: extended care, for patients who face longer stays, and acute care, to help patients who potentially could be discharged.
Overcrowding has been cited as one of Ancora's biggest challenges. The 709-bed hospital recently had an all-time high census of 780 patients. Yesterday's count was 656, and Velez said she wants the hospital to reach the low 600s by September.
In a recent report, the state Department of the Public Advocate called for more state funding for residential housing for patients capable of living independently.
Last year, nearly half of Ancora's beds were filled with patients who could have left had they had a place to stay with basic services, according to the state.
"It is more than just the public advocate's opinion," Corzine said. "It's our responsibility."
The public advocate, Ronald Chen, said yesterday the reforms were starting to work.
"To be a better hospital, Ancora needs to be a smaller hospital," he said.
Corzine said more changes could be forthcoming.
"We're not declaring victory," he said. "We're saying we're on a pathway. . . . We have more work to do."