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Outside inspectors open case into Arizona hospital ‘seclusion’ claim

Posted at 10:46 AM, Nov 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-05 15:37:26-05

PHOENIX — The outside commission that accredits the Arizona State Hospital has opened a review into claims that a psychiatric patient has been unlawfully isolated and secluded for hundreds of days.

A state senator is also expressing continued concern about the hospital’s repeated failures.

After reporting on a notice of claim filed by patient Isaac Contreras and his attorneys, ABC15 contacted The Joint Commission, which inspects and accredits healthcare facilities.

A spokesperson for the commission told ABC15 it was not previously aware of the situation and is now looking into it.

“After reviewing your request, The Joint Commission’s Office of Quality and Patient Safety (OQPS) determined that it was not aware of a patient safety concern at Arizona State Hospital,” according to the commission’s written statement. “In accordance with The Joint Commission's policy to review all patient safety and quality issues reported to us that have occurred in the past three years, OQPS is now opening a report to review the concern.”

As the Joint Commission reviews the concern, it could inspect the state hospital and seek records related to the matter before deciding on any actions to take against the facility.

The hospital is the state’s only publicly-run psychiatric facility and is operated by the Arizona Department of Health Services (ADHS). It’s considered the last resort for Arizona’s most vulnerable and severely mentally ill.

Contreras, who is 38 years old and designated as severely mentally ill (SMI), has been held in isolation since July 2020, according to his notice of claim filed on Nov. 10, 2021.

But instead of adhering to strict requirements for seclusion, Contreras’s attorneys said hospital officials are abusing a made-up designation called “administrative separation.”

Sen. Nancy Barto, who chairs the health committee and has long worked to improve oversight of the state hospital, was deeply troubled by the allegation.

“Renaming actual 'seclusion' as 'administrative separation', for 600 straight days, in my view is another horrendous example of this hospital's failure as a treatment facility,” Barto wrote to ABC15 in an email. “Independent hospital governance, oversight and transparency are seriously lacking on a number of levels and appropriate staffing is also of major concern.”

Last week, an ADHS spokesperson said the state couldn’t comment on specific patients or allegations due to confidentiality laws.

“Under state and federal law, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), ADHS cannot provide information that may identify a patient in the Arizona State Hospital. We can address general procedures and the policies, rules and statutes behind them but cannot connect these answers to specific patients,” ADHS Communications Director Steve Elliot wrote in an email. “ASH uses administrative separation under limited circumstances and when necessary for the safety of patients.”

ABC15 has reported extensively on the Arizona State Hospital for nearly a decade.

News reports have exposed problems with escapes, suicides, more than 1,000 ignored assaults, illegally withheld public records, staffing problems, staff having sex with patients, and extreme violence.

In 2015, six top hospital and health department executives were fired following a series of ABC15 reports.

In a pair of investigative reports last year, the station exposed a lack of supervision and treatment led to a brutal homicide at the hospital.

Since late October, two state hospital patients have committed suicide.

Contact ABC15 Investigator Dave Biscobing at Dave@ABC15.com.