by Erin Beck
West Virginia lawmakers, who are seeking records related to the abuse of patients with disabilities in state officials’ care, found it troubling Sunday that those allegations were left out of an evaluation focused on problems at the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
The allegations have sparked concern that the executive branch of West Virginia government is overstepping its bounds at the expense of vulnerable West Virginians at risk of abuse.
During legislative interim meetings at the Cacapon State Park Lodge in Berkeley Springs, DHHR Cabinet Secretary Bill Crouch denied claims from the advocacy group Disability Right of West Virginia that state officials are withholding information about abuse allegations from the advocacy organization.
Disability Rights of West Virginia is federally mandated to protect and advocate for people with disabilities in the state and conduct monitoring visits at certain health facilities, including state-owned psychiatric hospitals Sharpe Hospital in Weston and Mildred Mitchell- Bateman Hospital in Huntington.
At one point Sunday, Crouch noted that DHHR was the client of a group contracted to evaluate DHHR’s effectiveness – not lawmakers. He also accused DRWV of “borderline harassment.”
DRWV’s attorney, Mike Folio, has sent multiple letters in recent months seeking a variety of records and information from DHHR, and in one letter, he accused the Office of Health Facility Licensure & Certification’s Chief Operating Officer Shevona Lusk of directing DHHR employees not to respond to DRWV’s inquiries. He wrote that on Sept. 7, Lusk sent a written directive to DHHR state health care facility administrators and chief executive officers to withhold information from DRWV. Folio alleged the directive said, “If you receive a request from Disability Rights, do not provide information.”
Folio recently served as an attorney for DHHR before taking a new position as an attorney for DRWV.
After Gov. Jim Justice vetoed a bill to split DHHR into two agencies in March, he had directed the McChrystal Group to review its inefficiencies instead. The group, given 120 days, found that DHHR did not need to split, but did suffer from poor communication among employees working in silos and required “bold organizational change.”
Sunday, Crouch pointed to trouble retaining a workforce, but said that retention bonuses had provided some help.
Among other recommendations, the McChrystal Group report called for an executive leadership team to spread responsibility, a proposal Crouch said he agreed with.
Lawmakers were unimpressed with the report, asking Crouch several times if he’d attempted to influence it, but he said he’d been “hands-off” and asked employees “to be completely honest, whether it was good or bad.”
At one point, House Majority Leader Amy Summers, R- Taylor, said she could have put the report together “in five minutes.”
McChrystal Group presented twice on its organizational review of DHHR on Sunday. The $1 million report was discussed during a meeting of the Joint Committee on Government and Finance, as well as during a meeting of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Health and Human Resources Accountability.
McChrystal Group representatives defended their report, which several lawmakers criticized as vague and unactionable.
Lawmakers questioned why the disability rights group’s accusations were left out.
“It is hard to fathom that it was a mere coincidence that McChrystal Group did not want relevant information from DRWV and Ms. Lusk wanted to conceal information from DRWV,” Folio wrote, in a Nov. 11 letter to lawmakers. He also noted that DRWV has a federal obligation to protect persons with disabilities and that such organizations, located in all 50 states, were created to be “immune from political pressure and retaliatory actions of state officials, including DHHR cabinet secretaries and OHF COOs, and to ensure coordinated advocacy to prevent the historic patient abuses that have haunted disabled persons in West Virginia and all states.”
In an Oct. 2 letter, Folio had alleged that DRWV had found probable cause that at Sharpe Hospital, a state-owned psychiatric hospital in Weston, employees had engaged in verbal and physical patient abuse, as well as neglect, including three incidents in August and September, and had failed to provide the advocacy group with required weekly reports.
Advocates have also said that the hospital is improperly holding dozens of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, conditions that aren’t meant to be cured, and that the facility is instead designed for those with mental illness.
West Virginia lawmakers also sent their own letter, calling for an investigation. That letter alleged a pattern of abuse of people with disabilities in state facilities. On Oct. 14, they sent Gov. Jim Justice the letter, West Virginia Public Broadcasting reported. The letter listed several instances of abuse and neglect at state-run and state-funded facilities over the last several years.
Tense questions at interim meeting
Also in the Nov. 11 letter, Folio wrote to lawmakers Del. Amy Grady, chairwoman of the Legislative Oversight Commission on Health and Human Resources Accountability, and Del. Rohrbach, chairman of the same committee, that DRWV had reviewed McChrystal’s report and, “At no time did the McChrystal Group ever attempt to interview or meet with any person at DRWV,” even though DRWV had emailed Meghan Bourne, partner, on Sept. 29, Oct. 3, Oct. 13, and Oct. 17.
In a letter to Senate President Craig Blair Nov. 12, Crouch said abuse allegations were “completely false;” the letter also denied any “covering up” of abusive incidents.
“Many of these individuals are upset, angry, combative, and even violent during the course of their stay,” Crouch wrote. “Being a danger to self or others is a requirement for civil commitment. Psychiatric hospitals are a difficult environment in which to work and it takes a special type of individual to work there. Sharpe has dedicated staff that are committed to providing the best care possible for our patients.”
The letter also said the department conducts investigations and suspends employees in response to abuse allegations, and that employees undergo in-depth training
“The notion that incidents, accidents, and even suicide are never going to occur in a Special Psychiatric Hospital is not realistic,” the letter added.
Pointed questions were asked during the government and finance meeting. Sen. Charles Trump, R- Morgan, asked Osbourne whether they had looked into DRWV’s allegations. Osbourne said the report’s “findings and recommendations had been briefed” by Sept. 28, but DRWV did not notify them of claims until Sept. 29. She said the report was essentially in its “final stages” and that she stood by the decision not to involve DRWV.
“We simply had to draw the line somewhere,” she said, although she said she applauded the work of groups like DRWV.
Crouch said Folio has sent a multitude of letters, about 25-30, mainly related to Sharpe since resigning a few months ago, and DHHR now lacks enough attorney time to respond quickly.
He said, “It’s almost borderline harassment,”
Crouch also said Folio’s description of Lusk’s directive was a mischaracterization. He said she said, “If you get a request for information, please provide that to herself, the interim general counsel, who’s out of town, and myself, so we can coordinate those responses.”
Senate President Craig Blair, R- Berkeley, criticized Crouch for not providing the report to lawmakers until Thursday, when it was complete on Oct. 17, giving them little time for review.
“What happened from Oct. 17 to Nov. 10 that made it impossible to share this information with legislators?” he said.
“It wasn’t shared with anyone…This was an executive branch requirement in terms of DHHR following up on the governor’s direction to have a top-to-bottom review,” Crouch responded.
“It’s not a legislative branch contract,” Crouch continued. “So we didn’t release it to anyone until we had time for the governor’s office to review it, the governor to review it, it would have been inappropriate to give it out to the public or anyone else. We are the client.”
Contracting companies provide reports to the client, Crouch said, although Blair countered that the report was created with taxpayer dollars.
“This information should have been shared,” Blair said. “The Legislature has the power of the purse.”
Crouch also said it was uncommon among advocacy groups to release letters to the media, like Disability Rights of West Virginia.
But advocacy groups regularly do communicate with media to spread their message and awareness of their cause.
Following the meeting, Crouch assured a reporter he would provide all approximately 25 letters from DRWV, as well as DHHR responses, with retractions of patient names and other confidential information if needed.
“It’s public information,” he said. “We don’t try to hide things. The accusation that we do is troubling.”
“They have a right to information but there needs to be some oversight…” he said, referencing DRWV.