08/24/08 — DHHS secretary takes action at Cherry

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DHHS secretary takes action at Cherry

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 24, 2008 12:19 PM

A ward at Cherry Hospital has been shut down and several staff reassignments made as investigation continues into the recent death of a 50-year-old patient.

The state will also handle its own observations over the next day 90 days, said Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dempsey Benton in a press conference Friday afternoon. In addition to outlining a plan of action, he maintained that lapses in patient safety and substandard care will not be tolerated.

Earlier in the week, it was announced that the state had already sent teams to Cherry regarding two April incidents -- one involving the lack of care for a patient who sat in a chair in a dayroom for more than 22 hours before he choked on medication and died, the other a teenage patient struck by a physician in an altercation over a T-shirt.

While Benton credited hospital director Dr. Jack St. Clair and staff with working diligently to improve overall quality of care, he expressed dissatisfaction with the level of follow-up after the events, including the evaluation and corrective actions taken, as well as the loss of Steven Sabock's life.

"On behalf of the Department of Health and Human Services and myself personally, we deeply regret that Mr. Sabock died and that it occurred while a patient at Cherry Hospital," he said. "The department finds the circumstances related to this tragic death at Cherry Hospital completely unacceptable."

Meanwhile, the hospital's standards manager, responsible for internal investigation of patient incidents and developing plans of correction, has been reassigned to other duties.

Also as of Friday, the adult admissions ward on which the death occurred, has been closed and 16 staff members on duty at the time of the incident had been removed from direct patient care duties and given other assignments for at least 60 days.

During this period, officials said, the employees will be given additional training and re-education until they are deemed prepared by the hospital director to be ready to reassume patient care under the supervision of a training director.

"Closing this ward reduces the adult admissions section from 90 beds to 67," Benton said. "I want to stress that I believe the actions of these staff members is not indicative of the entire staff at Cherry Hospital who daily provide excellent care to the patients they serve.

"Those staff not involved in the failure to respond to the patient's needs will be reassigned to the three remaining units."

The ward closure will allow the hospital to have two registered nurses on the three remaining wards for each shift, which is now a standard for adult admissions wards, Benton said.

The secretary also outlined several steps he will require from the Division of Mental Health, Developmental Disabiltiies and Substance Abuse Section and Cherry Hospital regarding patient care and safety.

"The state will provide ongoing external management oversight for the next 90 days," he said. "This will involve a team of six professionals, including a medical doctor, who will monitor the wards for proper documentation of patient care, increasing training on treatment protocols and assisting in training that will improve the quality of supervision and nursing care for patients."

Cherry Hospital, which serves more than 2,700 people a year and employees 1,136 workers, will also see a reduction in its overall bed capacity. According to Benton's proposed changes, that number will drop from 274 to 251.

As a result, incoming patients will be sent to different locations or placed in community care systems, putting even more strain on the already stretched mental health facilities across the state.

It has also put Cherry's receipt of federal funding in question.

Calls by the News-Argus to Dr. St. Clair were not returned.