Lawmaker demands overdue audit of Arizona state hospital after ABC15 investigation exposes problems

A state lawmaker has promised to introduce a bill next legislative session that would require a full performance and financial audit of the Arizona State Hospital, known as ASH.

House Minority Leader Representative Chad Campbell , D–Phoenix, said he will be introducing the legislation after seeing a series of exclusive ABC15 investigative reports that exposed a shocking level of violence, frequent escapes, staffing shortages and dangerous conditions for staff and patients inside the state mental hospital.

"It seems like this whole ship is broken, and they need to right the ship," Campbell said.

See a special webpage dedicated to ABC15's investigation of the Arizona State Hospital.

The Arizona State Hospital is a state-run behavioral health facility for the severely mentally ill and criminally insane. Campbell met with top hospital officials a few months ago, including state behavioral health director Cory Nelson.

"They gave us this rosy picture that everything was great, everything was fine," he said.

But Campbell said he didn't believe them then and he is certainly not convinced now.

He points to the death of a young patient at the hospital on September 10th, 2013.

23-year-old Christopher Paul Blackwell died after swallowing dangerous objects, even though he was supposed to be monitored 24/7 to prevent him from doing so.

Evidence that Blackwell was not adequately monitored or cared for at the hospital can be found in his autopsy where it was revealed that the young man had managed to swallow dangerous objects at least five times in the last year despite the requirement he be monitored around the clock.

The ABC15 Investigators broke the story of Blackwell's death just days after he died and according to state officials our reports triggered a surprise federal inspection.

Then in November, came notice of what the feds found and it wasn't good news for hospital administrators.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) told the hospital that if it doesn't fix "serious deficiencies" that put patients and staff at risk, it will pull the hospital's certification and it will lose millions of dollars in federal reimbursements.

The federal inspectors found that Chris Blackwell wasn't the only patient the hospital failed to adequately monitor.

A 46-page federal inspection report cited six patients who, like Blackwell, should have been monitored around the clock because they pose a danger to themselves or others.

You can read the entire report as well as the hospital's plan to fix the problems inspectors uncovered.

And CMS inspectors found that medical staff at the hospital had failed to examine Blackwell when he returned from an emergency room visit less than a week before he died.

LAWMAKER HAS SEEN ENOUGH

Now Representative Campbell said he's seen enough and it's time to take meaningful action.

"We are going to introduce a bill to force an audit this year," he said.

The state hospital has a budget of $70 million a year. 

But you may be surprised to learn the last audit of the state mental hospital was done 14 years ago---in 1999.

Campbell told us, "The next audit isn't scheduled until 2019. We can force an audit. The legislature has that authority."

The last time ASH was audited---the results were unacceptable according to experts.

Auditors found the hospital had "severe difficulties ensuring that patients live in a safe and therapeutic environment."

The audit done at ASH in 1999 found some of the same serious problems our investigation discovered including staffing shortages, the failure to provide adequate therapy for patients and the lack of ability to intervene in patient disputes.

Since the audit in 1999, the hospital has also failed two other federal inspections.

The first was later in 1999--when the corrections they made were deemed inadequate.

And then they failed another inspection in 2004.

To fix the problems, state health department and hospital officials said they needed more money and new facilities.

They got their wish.

The state spent more than $110 million to build brand a new civil unit ($80 million in 2002) and a forensic unit ($32 million in 2011).

But experts said it appears little has changed.

"Any money that is being spent there is wasted," said Mark Wellek, M.D., the past president of the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry. "It's cost inefficient."

Wellek added, "I hope it somehow gets taken up into the legislature and gets discussed."

Rep. Campbell said he and other lawmakers, members on both sides of the aisle, are discussing the possibility that hearings about the state hospital may be held.

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