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People with disabilities are being abused in state-run facilities, and lawmakers want answers from the state health department.
In a letter to Gov. Jim Justice, Senate leaders outlined abuse suffered by people with disabilities who are by law under the care of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources. There were reports of people with disabilities being strangled, being forced to use the bathroom outside and dying from inappropriate nutrition. Even worse, they said there were efforts to cover it up.
The lawmakers, led by Senate President Craig Blair, said there is probable cause to believe DHHR is aware of patient mistreatment and abuse, and that the department is also aware of ongoing critical staffing issues and patient mistreatment at a state-run psychiatric facility.
The letter, dated Oct. 14, included examples of what lawmakers said was abuse under DHHR’s watch: In 2018, an Ohio County man with an intellectual disability died after three staff responsible for his care refused to provide CPR; in 2020, a woman from Cabell County with a disability died after being fed an improper diet then staff attempted to cover up their role in the death; and last year, a group home for people with disabilities had broken plumbing and staff forced them to use the bathroom in the backyard for months.
DHHR did not provide an interview for this story, but in an email, DHHR spokeswoman Allison Adler said there were significant inaccuracies and errors in the information but did not respond to the letter’s content. She pointed to the fact that the hospital is still certified to serve Medicare patients.
Jeremiah Samples, Senior Advisor to the Joint Committee on Government and Finance, worked with Blair on the letter. He was second in command over DHHR from 2017 until earlier this year when Samples lost his job over what he said was a difference in opinions among leadership about how to fix the agency’s major problems.
“DHHR is not being transparent with them about what’s occurring in these facilities,” Samples said. “As the Senate President said in his letter, this raises the importance of an independent investigation to find out what’s going on here. And, why do these issues – where disabled West Virginians are abused – why do these issues continue to come up year after year?”
Last year, lawmakers were notified of treatment of people in state-run psychiatric facilities through a DHHR report.
Lawmakers who signed the October letter called on Justice to launch the investigation. The governor has not responded to their letter and his administration did not return our request for an interview.
Disability Rights West Virginia (DRWV) told lawmakers about the ongoing mistreatment of persons with disabilities who are under the state’s care. Under federal law, Disability Rights WV monitors the state’s facilities and schools.
“The manner to which the legislature has been alerted to these issues is very troubling, especially given the immensity and gravity of the information shared by DRWV,” Blair wrote in the letter.
DRWV’s legal director, Mike Folio, said the lack of transparency at DHHR has been an ongoing issue.
“Since I started here, I learned that DRWV has sent letters to (DHHR) Secretary Crouch and his general counsel, April Robertson, back in 2020, and to date have not received a response. There is a pattern of unresponsiveness, non-responsiveness by DHHR,” Folio said.
Adler refuted this claim.
“We are unaware of any emails that were not responded to or that are not currently in the process of having responses prepared,” she said.
Folio added that a DHHR employee contacted them confidentially and said they were instructed to not provide information to the organization.
“That’s against the law,” Folio said.
Adler acknowledged the statement happened and she said its purpose was not to withhold information but rather to ensure that communication was accurate before being sent to DRWV.
Ongoing issues at state-run psychiatric hospital
DRWV is currently investigating DHHR’s oversight of William R. Sharpe Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Weston run by DHHR.
The facility has a troubled past. In 2017, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found the hospital had been providing inadequate treatment to patients, and CMS ultimately revoked the hospital’s ability to bill Medicaid or Medicare for services. It was reinstated in 2019.
Last year, a health service worker at the hospital was charged with strangling a patient. Four more workers were fired over allegations that they participated in patient abuse or watched it happen. DHHR recorded the abuse in its own inspection, and its records indicated broader abuse at the facility.
Folio sent a letter in October to Sharpe Hospital’s CEO saying an overload of patients created an unsafe environment for patients and staff. This led to patient abuse and neglect, Folio said, which violated federal laws that protect individuals with mental illness.
“We have received information from informants at Sharpe where patients have been abused …that there has been retaliation taken by certain members of Sharpe membership toward patients, and these have all occurred after August,” Folio said. “We are continuing to investigate.”
Adler in an email pointed to federal and state regulations that require hospitals ensure patients the right to receive care in a safe setting and their right to be free from all forms of abuse or harassment in response to our inquiry if patients Sharpe were being abused or mistreated.
Sharpe Hospital CEO Patrick Ryan did not respond to a request for an interview.
In July, lawmakers focused on Sharpe Hospital during a meeting of the Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Resources Accountability. They questioned why DHHR and Sharpe leaders were failing to comply with state laws regarding patient treatment and documentation.
Lawmakers asked DHHR Cabinet Secretary Bill Crouch how involved he was with the hospital.
“We have biweekly meetings where we talk with all of the hospital administrators in terms of their functioning,” Crouch replied to lawmakers. “I’m involved with regard to the activities of Sharpe and what happens at Sharpe.”
Folio stressed there are staff members at Sharpe and at DHHR caring for patients, and they are raising the alarm that they’re concerned about a lack of training and accountability.
“We’ve had a couple individuals who I’ll call our informants who are fearful of retaliation – that if they report issues that need to be addressed because it’s in the best interest of the patient, they’re fearful they’ll be retaliated against by leadership,” Folio said. “That’s not how this system is supposed to work.”
If you are a family member or legal guardian of a person with a disability who has been under DHHR care or at Shape Hospital, or if you are a person with a disability who is able to share your experience under DHHR care, we would like to hear from you about your experience for our reporting. Email reporter Amelia Knisely at email@example.com.