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Health department says FOX 13 News helped them realize discipline of psych hospitals ‘didn’t make sense'

Posted at 9:57 PM, May 25, 2024

MIDVALE, Utah — Regulators with the Utah Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) are explaining how investigative reports by FOX 13 News helped them realize their discipline of psychiatric hospitals “didn’t make sense.”

Highland Ridge Hospital – one of Utah’s only psychiatric hospitals – decided to shut down after years of safety concerns exposed by FOX 13 Investigates.

Still, lawmakers say that doesn’t mean DHHS should be off the hook for years of lenient enforcement, as Highland Ridge continued to place patients at risk.

“Obviously you know we had reports that were extremely concerning,” said Rep. Ken Ivory (R-West Jordan), chair of the House Human Services Committee.

Ivory then began quoting several FOX 13 News headlines.

“Can you help us understand how it would have been different with what you have in place now, had you had that in place all along?” Ivory asked.

In response, DHHS Assistant Deputy Director Amanda Slater admitted regulators used to treat all violations the same, giving psychiatric hospitals a clean slate whenever a deficiency was found and “corrected.”

Highland Ridge Hospital is not the only facility to have been repeatedly cited for the same issues, over and over again.

The hospital had a “habitual” problem of refusing to call 911 whenever a patient was assaulted or sexually assaulted, according to the Utah Attorney General’s Office.

Since 2019, just one psychiatric hospital in Utah has had more assault cases reported to police than Highland Ridge.

“Through some of the news that had risen about Highland Ridge, we started looking at our processes, to be completely honest with you,” Slater said. “(We gave facilities) a clean slate. We determined that doesn’t make sense for regulation. If a provider can come into compliance for one day, but then continue to have the same issue over and over again? That gives us serious concern.”

DHHS revoked Highland Ridge Hospital’s license four times, but the facility was never required to shut its doors.

Instead, DHHS issued the hospital a “conditional license” each time.

In the end, Highland Ridge Hospital’s parent company Acadia Healthcare made the decision to shut down.

Lori Wallace, a retired nurse with years of experience working in psychiatric hospitals, was shocked to see such lenient enforcement.

“I guess they didn’t want it on their record that they got shut down,” Wallace said. “It’s a control thing, I guess. They didn’t want the state pushing them. They wanted to say they left on their own terms... It’s unbelievable that it took so long.”

Year after year, patients told FOX 13 News that they left Highland Ridge feeling worse, not better.

They were relieved to see Highland Ridge close its doors, but they’re still worried DHHS could allow similar facilities to continue down the same path.

DHHS Licensing Director Simon Bolivar said the department has worked diligently to fill “gaps” in the system.

“It looked like we gave the provider a slap on the hand, they fixed it, they came into compliance, and then we started all over again,” Bolivar said. “We don’t have ability to be there 24/7, but the eyes of the community are very important for us.”

“We don’t want people to be served at a place that they’re not safe,” Slater added. “Once we made these changes, we started holding Highland Ridge accountable based on that new standard.”

DHHS now considers a facility’s history and the “severity” of harm to patients before handing down discipline.

“Our follow-up (inspections) are now unannounced,” Slater said. “As you’re aware, it’s a lot better to have your house clean if you know I’m coming.”

Still, the department’s goal is to help hospitals improve – not to shut them down.

Wallace said she would prefer if DHHS inspected facilities covertly, perhaps while posing as a patient.

“I think all places should do that,” Wallace said. “This has been such a cancerous type of a thing, and I think the state needs to take the initiative... If they go in there with coats and badges and name tags? They already know they have to run a tight ship... They have to go in completely anonymously. That’s the only way they’re going to tighten up the reins on these places.”

Ivory said he was not fully satisfied with DHHS’ answers to his questions, but he’s glad the department is trying something different.

He said he’s still not fully convinced that “this new standard is the right standard.”

“It took a long time, and reporting over many many months – well over a year – to even get to the point that there was a change in the standard!” Ivory said. "I was not pleased they were glossing over it all."

Ivory also said he’s relying on the media to keep reporting on these types of cases.

"It’s sunlight. They say that’s the best disinfectant. It’s certainly the way we get to better government, having transparency and sunlight. So thank you for what you’re doing, and keep us informed. Keep us informed."

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