After nearly two years of dealing with high-profile problems at its public psychiatric hospitals, the Department of State Health Services plans to spend $782,000 over the next two years to bolster patient protections at the mental health facilities.
Under a new law passed unanimously by the Texas House and Senate, the agency will enhance its employee background checks, drug testing and criminal investigations. It also orders State Health Services to continue scrutinizing accusations of abuse and neglect against its patients.
The legislation comes after almost two years of reporting by the American-Statesman on problems at the state psychiatric hospitals, which provide treatment to about 14,000 people with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and other mental health conditions. Since November 2011, the newspaper has written about such issues as state hospital doctors with a history of sexual improprieties, unauthorized research on patients at North Texas State Hospital and the death of a woman at Rusk State Hospital who starved herself.
Terrell State Hospital is currently under federal investigation because of problems with its medical care.
“After hearing of preventable tragedies at state hospitals during the interim, the Legislature has responded quickly to solve these issues,” said state Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who sponsored the bill. “Individuals in our state hospitals are one of the most vulnerable populations we serve, and we must ensure they are treated with the highest level of care.”
Mental health advocates applaud the bill.
“We think it’s great that this bill has passed and that added protections and training are available,” said Lynn Lasky Clark, director of Mental Health America of Texas.
Nelson’s legislation doesn’t target what experts say are the root causes of the hospital problems, such as poor medical care and employee oversight. But it does require State Health Services to closely track abuse and neglect allegations against employees — something the agency is already doing.
The state health department developed such a system last year after former Austin State Hospital psychiatrist Charles Fischer was fired amid allegations that he sexually abused his minor patients. The doctor had been accused of abusing children in his care about 10 times over his 20-year career with the state hospital system, but no one detected the pattern of allegations. A Travis County grand jury has since indicted Fischer in 23 sex crimes against five adolescent hospital patients.
State Health Services officials now analyze quarterly reports detailing the most serious abuse and neglect allegations. Employees accused more than twice within a one-year period are being scrutinized more closely.
The majority of the $782,000 attached to the new law will give the Health and Human Service Commission’s inspector general $536,000 over two years to hire four additional investigators to examine potential crimes involving patients at the hospitals. That office hired six investigators to do such work last year, when the agency was first ordered to regularly scrutinize hospital cases.
The legislation also requires the inspector general to employ peace officers who can help local law enforcement collect evidence and request confidential information. The agency already does this, but the law now requires the work to be performed by commissioned peace officers, said Stephanie Goodman, spokeswoman for the state Health and Human Services Commission.
State Health Services already conducts employee background checks through the Department of Public Safety, said Chris Van Deusen, spokesman for the health agency. Now they will conduct FBI criminal background checks, which are fingerprint-based and will allow them to see offenses from other states. That protocol will cost the state about $97,000 over the next two years.
The new law also requires hospitals to conduct random drug testing on about 2 percent of their employees each month, which will cost about $150,000 for the biennium.
“We’ve previously drug tested only at time of employment and upon reasonable suspicion,” Van Deusen said.
Nelson’s bill wasn’t the only hospital-related legislation filed this year. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, proposed requirements that, among other things, would have created an independent ombudsman to investigate complaints and conduct inspections at the hospitals. That bill never made it out of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.