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Aurora Las Encinas Hospital again under scrutiny

A whistleblower lawsuit has been filed against the Pasadena mental health hospital, alleging 'minimal, substandard care' to patients.

January 24, 2011|Rong-Gong Lin II, Los Angeles Times

An Aurora Las Encinas Hospital employee has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the owners of the Pasadena mental hospital, alleging that top company officials have defrauded the federal government by providing "minimal, substandard care" to patients.

The lawsuit, filed last year under seal in U.S. District Court, recently was made public. The suit marks the latest in a series of complaints about care at the psychiatric hospital known for decades as a destination for wealthy and famous patients seeking mental health help and treatment for alcohol and drug abuse.

The hospital came under scrutiny after reports in The Times of the unexpected deaths of three patients, as well as the alleged rape of a teenage patient by another patient, all within a five-month period in 2008.

Since then, the 118-bed facility has been warned twice that it could lose federal funding. In addition, California officials have accused two nurses and a physician of negligence in connection with the deaths of two patients.

The 34-page whistleblower lawsuit was filed on behalf of Shelby Eidson, who has been a mental health worker at the facility since 2005. Eidson's suit names the hospital, parent company Signature Healthcare Services, which has offices in Michigan and Corona, Calif., and owner Dr. Soon K. Kim, among other defendants.

The suit alleges that the hospital's treatment of patients failed to meet federal standards, violating its agreement with Medicare and Medicaid to provide quality care.

Eric Rose, a spokesman for Las Encinas, called the claims false, saying he had "every confidence that we will prevail in this meritless lawsuit. We stand proudly behind our patient care."

Many of the allegations cited in the lawsuit have been previously reported in The Times and documented in government investigations of the hospital.

Among them:

• The deaths of 26-year-old Leo Grassini in 2006 and 23-year-old Alex Clyburn in 2008. Both patients were being treated for substance abuse, and in both cases workers falsified logs to show they had been checked every 15 minutes, government inspection reports said.

• The death of 28-year-old Jeffrey Hearn in 2008, who fatally overdosed on contraband prescription medication smuggled into the facility.

• The suicide of Timur Otus, 43, a bipolar patient who hanged himself at the hospital in 2008.

• The alleged rape of a 14-year-old girl in 2008 by a 16-year-old patient, which occurred while hospital staffers slept nearby, according to two sources. Jonathan Aguilar was charged by the Los Angeles County district attorney's office with rape but has been declared mentally incompetent to stand trial.

More recently, government inspectors cited deficiencies in care related to a bipolar patient who cut her forearm with metal from a paintbrush in late 2009. The lawsuit alleged that the patient had been found mutilating herself before but an order to monitor the patient was disregarded even as the hospital billed Medi-Cal for the extra care.

This is not the first time Kim, the owner of Signature Healthcare Services, has been the target of a whistleblower lawsuit. In 2006, Kim and several other parties agreed to pay the U.S. government $1.73 million to settle accusations of Medicare fraud in connection with his ownership of three firms that operated mental health facilities in Michigan, according to the settlement agreement.

The payment came after a lawsuit was filed by a former chief executive at one of Kim's companies, accusing Kim and his firms of overstating expenses in reports to the U.S. government. The U.S. attorney's office in Detroit later joined the lawsuit.

The chain's psychiatric facility in Chicago also has been under scrutiny. Last year, the Chicago Tribune reported that since July 2008, there have been at least four reports alleging that youths had been sexually assaulted or abused at Aurora Chicago Lakeshore Hospital.

The U.S. attorney's office is investigating the pending whistleblower case in Los Angeles, according to a court filing, and could decide to intervene at a later date.

Locally, government enforcement agencies have filed accusations against staff members who worked at the Pasadena hospital.

Nurse Grace Anne McMeekin has been accused of gross negligence and incompetence by the California Board of Registered Nursing in connection with the death of Clyburn. In its accusation, the state alleged that McMeekin provided Clyburn, who was already under the influence when he was admitted to the hospital, medications that further depressed his breathing.

Peter Osinoff, an attorney for McMeekin, said McMeekin reached a settlement with the attorney general's office in December, which is being forwarded for approval to the Board of Registered Nursing.

Another registered nurse, Fernando Gino Morales, was accused of gross negligence in Clyburn's death. Attempts to reach Morales and his lawyer for comment were unsuccessful.

"If the RNs did their job, I believe our son would be alive today," said Clyburn's mother, Arline.

Grassini's death also led to enforcement action. The Medical Board of California has filed an accusation against Dr. Joseph S. Haraszti alleging he failed to order appropriate medication and doses in the hours before Grassini died. Grassini was being treated for depression, alcohol dependence and opiate abuse.

Osinoff, who is also representing Haraszti, said the doctor denies wrongdoing. "We contend that his care and treatment … were entirely appropriate," Osinoff said.

Grassini's father, Lawrence, said no one should die from entering a hospital for depression and detoxification. He said he was troubled by the whistleblower's allegations, adding that if negligent acts were proved due to greed, "that makes it twice as bad."

ron.lin@latimes.com

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