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Report reveals critical issues with W.Va. behavioral health facilities

Updated: May. 11, 2021 at 7:28 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - A new report from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) is revealing the horrible conditions some of the state’s most vulnerable people are having to live in, sometimes resulting in death and serious injury.

Behavioral Health Centers are designed to care for people with mental, behavioral or addictive disorders that require a higher level of care than other basic facilities. The DHHR report, released Monday, said the incidents have been growing in number and severity in recent years, and they have reached a “crisis level.”

The report includes descriptions of events that have killed at least three people who live in the facilities and injured many others.

A 19-year-old, who should have been under constant supervision, was poisoned after drinking antifreeze left unsecured in a facility truck. He did not get medical care for more than 12 hours despite telling staff what happened.

Another child, who should have also been under constant supervision at his Kanawha County facility, was able to get keys to a facility-owned car and died in a fiery crash.

A group home in Greenbrier County admitted a patient who had previously served time in prison for child molestation. The staff failed to provide required supervision, and allegedly the patient molested a housemate within a couple days of joining the house.

“The physical abuse that these individuals had undergone was just dead wrong,” Del. Matthew Rohrbach (R-Cabell) said after seeing the report during Monday’s Legislative Oversight Commission on Health and Human Resources Accountability meeting. “It’s not even up to the standards of basic human dignity.”

“We have moved to more group home models, but we are going to have to have them safe and secure where our patients get treated with the dignity that they deserve,” Rohrbach said. “We are not as a state, and a state government, going to tolerate what we saw in that report.”

Rohrbach said it was the most disgusting report he has seen in his seven years in the House of Delegates. He has already started talking with legislative leaders and other lawmakers about how to protect these handicapped people.

The report includes a description of one patient who required CPR, but died when three staff members refused to help them. Another person, who was on suicide watch, required surgery after attempting to swallow a battery.

“The incidents made public yesterday by OHFLAC regarding our homes that service our disabled and disadvantaged were horrifying and appalling,” Sen. Richard Lindsay (D-Kanawha) said. “OHFLAC clearly does not have the resources to satisfy its mandate -- not surprising, given the budget cuts DHHR has endured over the last six years.”

A facility in Cabell County did not train its staff, and instead had staff just sign a form saying they had been trained. The care facility only began training people on patient programs and safety protocols after someone died.

“DHHR’s Office of Health Facility Licensure and Certification (OHFLAC) is notified (of incidents) via a variety of sources,” a DHHR spokesperson said in a statement. “These may include, but are not limited to, complaints by telephone, written correspondence, and online; Adult and Children Protective Services; protection advocacy organization; and self-reporting, as required by law, by providers.”

The DHHR said it also monitors medical records to ensure a facility does not attempt to hide a violation. The DHHR report said around 20 percent of facilities were issued citations in 2020 for failing to prevent clients from getting infections, 10 percent of facilities failed to protect patients and their rights and 9 percent were issued citations for nursing service issues.

“Complaints are regularly investigated, and when appropriate, penalties are assessed,” the DHHR statement said. “To this point, penalties have included admission bans, reduction in census, additional provider reporting, and increased survey presence.”

This current system has not prevented people from being hurt in the state’s 611 Behavioral Health Centers. New laws looking to change that are set to go into place this June. They will allow the DHHR to fine care providers for violations, as well as clarify patient rights issues.

Lawmakers are concerned that is not enough to protect people who are under the care of the state, and they’re looking to additional measures to protect the community’s most vulnerable people.

“The system is broken and needs a lot of immediate attention,” Sen. Ron Stollings (D-Boone) said. “We must learn where the breakdowns are and attempt a real fix including funding, education, and staff development.”

“I think you are going to have to look at criminal charges against these individuals that commit these crimes,” Rohrbach said. “I think you are going to have to look at a registry that would make it so these individuals can’t work again in this industry. I think you are going to have to look at fines on the operators and making safer facilities. This is just not going to be tolerated.”

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