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The California Department of Mental Health today proposed eliminating about 600 state hospital positions to shed costs, reducing the department's authorized workforce by about 5 percent.

The proposal came as the department prepares to establish a new Department of State Hospitals next year. It announced a series of streamlining and cost-reduction measures ahead of a formal budget proposal next month.

More than half of the positions proposed for elimination are vacant, and employees who are affected may move to other jobs within the department, said Kathy Gaither, acting chief deputy director of the department.

"The goal is no layoffs," she said.

Conditions at the state hospitals have drawn the attention of federal officials for years, but Gaither said the department could manage the proposed reductions, estimated to reduce spending by about $173 million next year.

Among other measures, officials proposed higher staffing ratios for hospital units with sicker and more aggressive patients, and lower ratios for more stable ones. The department said it is installing a new alarm system at Napa State Hospital, where a psychiatric technician was killed last year.

"We are making the changes that are long overdue," Cliff Allenby, acting director of the department, said in a prepared statement.



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