The state health department is attempting to conceal information about the treatment of people with disabilities who are in state care, according to an attorney with Disability Rights West Virginia (DRWV).
Mike Folio, attorney for DRWV, told state lawmakers Tuesday that this year his organization made 80 visits to William R. Sharpe Hospital, a state-run psychiatric facility in Weston. Under federal law, DRWV monitors the treatment of West Virginians with disabilities in facilities run by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR).
“Last Tuesday, two of my advocates and I … met with Sharpe Hospital employees, who I would call our informants. They shared with us disconcerting information that they were told by (DHHR) leadership not to talk to DRWV,” Folio told lawmakers in the Joint Health Committee.
“As we dig into this, we see a pattern, a practice, a habit, a custom of concealing information,” he continued. “That violates federal law.”
Folio said what’s going on at Sharpe Hospital is “an abysmal failure.” In contrast, he noted that DHHR is doing well with patients at the state-run Mildred Mitchell Bateman psychiatric hospital in Huntington.
DHHR Cabinet Secretary Bill Crouch was given the opportunity to rebut Folio’s comments in front of lawmakers. He called for an investigation of his agency and into DRWV’s practices and said DHHR does its own investigations of its state-run hospitals. The state Office of Health Facility Licensure and Certification, which is under DHHR, also conducts facility investigations.
“The implication that we’re covering things up … it is wrong. We take good care of folks,” Crouch said. “We don’t sweep things under the rug. We tell the truth.”
The presentation to lawmakers added to the growing list of issues that have come to light about DHHR’s treatment of people with disabilities who are in their care.
In October, Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, sent the governor a list of what the lawmaker called abuse under DHHR’s care and issues at Sharpe, and his letter included concerns about DHHR’s transparency about issues. And last month, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched an investigation into DHHR’s alleged discrimination against patients with disabilities by allowing them to be unnecessarily institutionalized. Lawmakers have heard concerns about treatment of patients with disabilities in previous legislative sessions.
Much of Folio’s presentation focused on what he referred to as “patient dumping” or “warehousing patients” by allowing them to remain unnecessarily institutionalized. He said the agency has spent $20.3 million to institutionalize 29 patients this year, which is more than $700,000 a patient.
Crouch has maintained the state does not have enough community placements for people with disabilities.
“We certainly want these people in the right level of care. There’s no intent to keep people in psychiatric care,” he told lawmakers.
Folio is a former attorney for DHHR, and Crouch, in response to the presentation, said that Folio has made DRWV’s investigation a “personal attack” on the agency.
“Mr. Folio says that (DRWV) is not adversarial with DHHR … then he goes on to criticize every aspect of DHHR. Then, he gets personal with our CEO and myself,” Crouch said.
Folio told lawmakers, “We are not here as an adversary of DHHR. We are here as an ally of the disabled persons who have no voice.”
DHHR has currently instated a hiring freeze as it is undergoing an internal restructuring in an effort to improve agency outcomes. The changes following the $1 million review from the McChrystal Group, which said the agency was in need of “bold changes.” Lawmakers have criticized the report for its lack of substance amid the state’s poor health outcomes.