Health Care

Patient death endangers federal funds

The death of a patient at Cherry Hospital after about a day without enough food and water led investigators to threaten to take away the hospital's federal money.

The patient, a 50-year-old man whose name the state Department of Health and Human Services did not release, died in his bed at Cherry Hospital in Goldsboro on April 29. He was pronounced dead at Wayne Memorial Hospital.

According to the department, investigators said hospital staff did not pay attention to the man's needs for food and water for a day. Inspectors were at the hospital for several days last week, and Cherry received a letter Monday saying patient safety was in "immediate jeopardy."

Hospitals that receive such a letter are in danger of losing federal payments unless problems are corrected to investigators' satisfaction.

The man's autopsy report says he died of a heart problem called lymphocytic myocarditis.

The death report Cherry filed with DHHS said the man was on an admissions ward and had been at the hospital only a few days.

DHHS spokesman Tom Lawrence said the agency did not have the investigators' full report.

Investigators also cited a second incident in April in which staff improperly handled an agitated teenager with developmental disabilities. A doctor punched the teenager, Ricky Luciano, in the back during a tussle. The hospital did not tell Luciano's mother about the incident for weeks. She learned about it through a terse letter from the hospital.

Hospital gets deadline

This is the second time in less than a year that investigators have threatened Cherry with the loss of its federal money. The hospital has about three weeks to come up with a plan to correct its problems.

The state mental health system has suffered for years from a lack of community programs for seriously ill patients and state hospital wards that often don't have enough room for all the people who need to get in.

All the state's mental hospitals -- except the hospital in Butner that opened last month -- have been in trouble with investigators during the past year.

Dempsey Benton, head of DHHS, has vowed to improve them.

The federal government took the rare step of taking money away from Broughton Hospital in Morganton for nearly a year when one patient died after being restrained and another was seriously injured in a fall. Then-director Seth Hunt was demoted after 12 years on the job.

In September, investigators threatened Cherry with the loss of its federal payments because of problems with a patient escape, a patient being improperly restrained and a delay in getting needed oxygen to a patient. The hospital produced a correction plan that allowed it to escape sanctions.

Jim Osberg, the DHHS administrator in charge of state facilities, said Cherry had worked to address the April incidents before inspectors arrived last week, though Osberg could not provide details.

"They looked at both those incidents around the time they occurred and worked on specific plans to address those issues," Osberg said.

Hospital director Jack St. Clair did not return telephone calls this week.

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