August 1, 2008

Sacramento’s VA Hospital No Longer Sends Patients to Sierra Vista for Mental Health Treatment

By Todd Milbourn, The Sacramento Bee, Calif.

Aug. 1--Officials at a Sacramento veterans hospital are so troubled by conditions at a local psychiatric facility they no longer send patients there.

The Sacramento VA Medical Center referred 43 patients to Sierra Vista Hospital in 2007 for mental health treatment. But referrals have been halted since November, The Bee learned this week, when a veteran reportedly received shoddy care at the facility.

Robin Jackson, a VA spokeswoman, would not elaborate on what happened in that case, but she said the lapses were serious enough to suspend a long-standing relationship.

"We're waiting for assurances our veterans will receive high quality care," Jackson said. Until then, the VA sends patients needing inpatient mental health services to Sacramento's Heritage Oaks or a similar facility in El Dorado County.

Sierra Vista, the subject of a Bee investigation published earlier this week, has been cited by state inspectors 111 times since 2004, more than any other private psychiatric facility in California. Violations range from short staffing to lax drug controls to failure to protect patients from violence. At least three patients have died because of poor care at the facility since 2000, according to state regulators.

Despite that regulatory scrutiny, Sierra Vista is in the midst of an $8 million expansion to add 48 beds to the current roster of 72. That expansion will require state approval.

A spokesman for Sierra Vista's parent company, Psychiatric Solutions Inc., didn't return a message from The Bee.

But Joey Jacobs, the publicly traded company's CEO, responded to concerns at Sierra Vista and another Psychiatric Solutions hospital in Chicago during a conference call Thursday with investors. The Chicago facility is under fire for allegedly failing to protect teenage patients from sexual abuse.

"We take continuous improvement of quality very seriously," Jacobs told the investors. "Our facilities are surveyed multiple times each year on average, and less than one percent of these surveys result in deficiencies -- a testament to our diligent efforts."

On the financial side, Psychiatric Solutions reported its best quarter ever Thursday, with $451 million in revenue for the most recent quarter.

Officials at Kaiser Permanente said they plan to continue referring psychiatric patients to Sierra Vista, which is across the street from their south Sacramento complex.

Kaiser declined to disclose how many patients it refers to Sierra Vista because the information is "proprietary."

Steve Melcher, Kaiser's director of inpatient psychiatry, said in a brief statement that Kaiser members sent to Sierra Vista are "closely monitored."

"Providing our patients high quality care is our top priority," Melcher wrote.


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