Health Care

Feds descend on Cherry Hospital

A large team of federal regulators arrived at Cherry Hospital on Tuesday to perform a top-to-bottom review of the state mental facility's operations and investigate new complaints of patient neglect and abuse at the Goldsboro hospital.

The group is expected to seek information on the beating of a patient by two hospital employees last week, as well as a previously undisclosed incident from December when a patient fell down a laundry chute.

The increased scrutiny could further imperil the hospital's ability to receive federal money, potentially costing North Carolina taxpayers millions in lost revenue.

Jeff Horton, director of the state division that ensures compliance with federal regulations, said about 10 people were on the team sent to Cherry.

"It takes a lot of people to do a full survey," Horton said. "We're going to look at everything."

The Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services threatened this month to withdraw federal insurance reimbursements from the hospital after the April death of a patient who choked on his medication, hit his head and then was left sitting in a chair 22 hours while nearby staff played cards and watched television.

Federal officials have accepted a plan submitted by hospital administrators to address the multiple violations cited in a report last week. The surveyors now at the hospital, state employees working on behalf of the federal agency, are charged with making a recommendation by Sept. 1 as to whether Cherry's certification should be withdrawn.

The intensive review is similar to what happened at Broughton Hospital in Morganton last year, when federal support was removed after the death of a patient who had been restrained by staff.

Horton also confirmed that the team sent to Cherry on Tuesday would be investigating new complaints against the hospital staff, though he said federal rules forbid him to give details.

Tom Lawrence, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said hospital administrators indicated the surveyors were looking into the reported assault Aug. 18 of a patient and injury Dec. 28 of another patient.

Taniko Dominique Upton and William Kenneth Johnson, both health-care technicians at Cherry, were charged Friday with simple assault on a handicapped person, a misdemeanor.

Upton is accused of knocking a male patient to the floor, then kicking and punching him. Johnson is accused of holding the man during the initial assault, and then joining Upton in the beating, according arrest warrants.

The News & Observer requested information this month on a report of a female patient who fell down a laundry chute.

Cherry administrators provided a copy of a one-page incident report with information blacked out. The report indicates only that the patient went unaccounted for after eating an afternoon snack of grapes and that a search was initiated.

Lawrence confirmed Tuesday that the patient had removed a grate from an unused laundry chute at the hospital, climbed inside and fallen to the bottom. He said he did not know how many floors the patient fell or the extent of her injuries.

Members of a legislative committee on mental health that met Tuesday expressed outrage at the circumstances surrounding the death of patient Steven Sabock on April 29. Sabock's death triggered the initial federal review this month.

The legislators sought to solve what they called deep-seated problems in the state's mental hospitals and suggested better pay to attract better workers. The starting salary for the technicians is about $25,000 a year.

"I'm not sure we had people involved who care about the patients," said Sen. Martin Nesbitt, an Asheville Democrat and committee co-chairman. "That is a systemic problem I don't know how to fix."

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