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State Opens Investigation of Private Hospital

On-site review could determine future federal funding in wake of sexual abuse cases.

October 24, 2002|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

Prompted by allegations of patient sexual abuse and the conviction of former hospital workers on molestation charges, state health officials this week launched a broad investigation to determine if Pine Grove Hospital is fit to receive federal health-care funds.

The California Department of Health Services began an on-site review Monday of the private West Hills psychiatric hospital. Investigators began poring over medical and employment records, interviewing employees and patients, and scrutinizing hospital regulations, said Brenda Klutz, deputy director of licensing and certification for the state health department.

By week's end, the results will be forwarded to the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which administer a number of big-ticket federal health programs. The hospital could face a number of sanctions, from stricter state monitoring to a ban on federal welfare payments, Klutz said.

"It's really an in-depth review to see if they have appropriate systems in place to prevent, detect and correct problems," Klutz said. "If they don't have appropriate safeguards in place, then it could affect their certification status for getting Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements."

Pine Grove Administrator Larry McFarland declined to comment on the investigation Wednesday.

The hospital already was the subject of a review by the Los Angeles County Mental Health Department, which began an investigation after an August incident involving a 13-year-old patient. A 17-year-old boy, also a patient, pleaded guilty to one count of a lewd act with a child. State officials later cited the hospital for failing to monitor a hallway, state documents show.

State and local health officials also are scrutinizing four incidents in 2000 in which former Pine Grove workers were accused of sexually molesting patients and former patients, three of them underage girls.

Four Pine Grove employees were investigated by local law enforcement authorities. Prosecutors declined to file charges against two of the men, but two others -- counselor Angel Vargas and mental health worker Quincy Crawford -- are currently serving time.

Vargas, 38, is serving a four-month sentence in Los Angeles County Jail after pleading guilty to one count of unlawful sexual intercourse with a 15-year-old girl he propositioned while she was being treated at Pine Grove, according to court documents. He had sex with the girl in a Santa Clarita park in early 2000, a few months after her release from the hospital, court records show.

Quincy Crawford, 28, is serving a three-year sentence in state prison for having sex with a 13-year-old Pine Grove patient in a hospital restroom in August 2000.

That girl's mother is suing Crawford, the hospital and its parent company, Doctors Community Healthcare Corp., alleging administrators failed to adequately protect patients. The suit also contends that the hospital's background checks and training of employees were insufficient.

An attorney for the hospital and its parent company has denied the allegations. A trial date is set for January.

The county Mental Health Department concluded the fieldwork portion of its investigation of Pine Grove on Monday and will announce in two to three weeks what actions, if any, it will take against the hospital, Chief Deputy Director David Meyer said.

If the county decides Pine Grove is unsafe, it could face a wide range of sanctions, from formal warnings to the revocation of its authority to involuntarily detain patients -- an important source of income for many mental health hospitals, Meyer said.

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