In Sherman, workers at a psychiatric ward dropped a suicidal patient off at a bus stop; a day later he was found dead after jumping from a Dallas bridge.
In San Angelo, hospital employees created infection risks by leaving an observation room covered in vomit and a kitchen black with grease and dead bugs.
And in Austin, male nurses stripped a teenage sex-abuse victim and shut her in solitary confinement, naked.
Inspection data uncovered by The Dallas Morning News shows that serious safety problems have plagued dozens of mental-health hospitals owned by one giant chain: Universal Health Services Inc.
Across Texas and around the country, government inspectors investigating patient complaints cited 44 of the company’s hospitals for dangerously poor care or unsafe conditions between 2012 and mid-2015, according to data from the federal Department of Health and Human Services. That’s more than a quarter of the 154 company hospitals that The News identified as receiving taxpayer money to treat the poor and elderly.
Inspectors found safety breaches at 13 of the company’s 26 such facilities in Texas, the hospital company’s largest market. Universal Health is the nation’s biggest for-profit provider of mental-health services, including treatment for depression and addiction, and also owns some full-service hospitals.
“The large number of investigations aimed at misconduct within this hospital system is appalling,’’ said Dr. Peter Breggin, a New York-based psychiatrist who has consulted for the National Institute of Mental Health and the commission that accredits hospitals. “It is especially frightening that these deviations are occurring in the largest network of psychiatric hospitals in the country.’’
Universal Health, which is valued by Wall Street at over $11 billion, says its overall safety record is excellent. It cites rising patient-satisfaction scores and above-average results on hospital-accreditation evaluations.The number of government safety citations simply reflects the chain’s size, according to the company, which is based in a suburb of Philadelphia. When problems have been brought to its attention, the company says, it has come up with plans to fix them.
“We are mindful that over the course of treating approximately 2.5 million patients per year, irregular and unpredictable events occasionally occur,” the company said in a statement in response to questions from The News.
However federal data suggests that Universal Health has a higher-than-average rate of problems, according to a News analysis of government reports on hospitals that receive funding from Medicaid and Medicare. For example, government inspectors investigating complaints found serious problems at 8.4 percent of Universal’s hospitals in 2014, the most recent full year for which data is available. Nationwide, that figure was 3 percent.
Federal regulators usually focus only on incidents at individual hospitals, not across chains, so government data is fragmented and you can’t easily compare Universal Health to its peers. And the company operates hospitals under a variety of names that can make it difficult for patients and watchdogs to evaluate its overall care.
But the government compiled an unusual systemwide report on the company last summer at the request of congressmen from Illinois and Massachusetts, where a report by the Boston Globe and another by the Chicago Tribune revealed problems at Universal Health hospitals.