A U.S. Department of Justice probe into patient care at a suburban psychiatric hospital is expanding to three other prominent Illinois facilities owned by Universal Health Services Inc., the nation's largest operator of behavioral health hospitals and treatment centers, the Tribune has learned.
The department initially launched its investigation in 2008 after the Tribune documented allegations that several youths were sexually assaulted at the west suburban Riveredge psychiatric hospital.
DCFS stopped sending state wards to Riveredge after the Tribune reports and commissioned the University of Illinois at Chicago's psychiatry department to examine conditions there, as well as at other psychiatric facilities that serve Illinois wards.
The UIC team subsequently produced highly critical reports that alleged misuse of psychotropic drugs at Streamwood and described patient-on-patient attacks and sexual assaults among other problems at Hartgrove. DCFS has placed those facilities on intake hold as well.
Universal has owned Hartgrove for more than a decade, but the company took over Riveredge, Streamwood and Rock River in its 2010 acquisition of rival health care giant Psychiatric Solutions Inc. The UIC reviews of Riveredge and Streamwood were conducted before Universal's takeover of those facilities.
Universal and its executives and staff have not been accused of any wrongdoing, and the focus of the federal investigation is unclear.
Officials from Pennsylvania-based Universal, which operates 187 behavioral health facilities across the U.S. and generates annual revenue of more than $7 billion, said Tuesday they were unaware of the new Justice Department inquiries.
"This is absolutely news to me," said Steven Airhart, Universal's regional vice president in Chicago. "There's been no contact, there's been no inquiry, no subpoenas, no request for documents by the Justice Department to anyone (at Universal) in the Illinois market."
In a written statement, Airhart added that the four facilities "are committed to providing the highest quality care to our patients as well as all wards of the state." The four facilities are in compliance with all state and federal regulatory and licensing requirements, the statement said.
In a recent report filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Universal said it has cooperated fully with the Justice Department investigation of Riveredge. "At present, we are uncertain as to the focus, scope or extent of the investigation, liability of the facility and/or potential financial exposure, if any, in connection with this matter," the company's filing said.
Justice officials in Chicago and Washington declined comment.
Rock River is a residential center for troubled adolescents, while Riveredge, Hartgrove and Streamwood are hospitals that combined have more than 500 beds. The four facilities generate tens of millions of dollars annually in taxpayer-financed payments to Universal.
In November, records show, the Justice Department asked the UIC team to provide documents collected during its examinations of Hartgrove and Streamwood. Federal authorities asked for records assessing patient care and hospital staffing, as well as any UIC interviews with patients and current and former hospital employees.
"This information is necessary to further health oversight activities," said the request issued by Andrew Penn, a trial attorney in the Justice Department's commercial fraud branch in Washington.
The Justice Department's letters to UIC and DCFS are voluntary requests, not subpoenas that order a person or company to produce documents or face potential court sanctions. But that does not suggest the investigation is any less serious, legal experts said.
Ron Davidson, who directs the mental health policy program in UIC's psychiatry department, turned the documents over to DCFS, which is providing them to Justice, records show. Davidson declined comment.
DCFS also declined comment on the federal investigation. In response to an open records request, the agency provided the Tribune with the Justice Department's November letter to UIC and subsequent request to DCFS.
Since 2008, a series of Tribune watchdog reports has uncovered allegations of harm to children at Chicago-area psychiatric hospitals as well as haphazard monitoring by a patchwork of government agencies.
At the Rock River center, the Tribune in 2010 documented a spike of two dozen escapes by troubled girls and found that at least two others allegedly were sexually assaulted on the street after they ran away. The child welfare agency currently has 39 youths placed at Rock River and monitors their safety and care under a performance-based contract, according to agency spokesman Dave Clarkin.
In response to the Tribune articles, DCFS and state public health officials in 2010 vowed to launch reforms aimed at beefing up the inspections of psychiatric hospitals and holding the facilities accountable for safety breaches.
But Melaney Arnold, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Public Health, said a key provision of those reforms was never carried out. The state could not hire more inspectors because the General Assembly would not pass legislation imposing a licensing fee on hospitals to generate money necessary to hire more staff, she said.
"Hospitals are the only health facilities licensed by the department that do not pay a licensing fee," Arnold said. "The department continues to believe that funding to hire more nurse surveyors to conduct routine and complaint inspections will help protect the health and safety of hospital patients and improve quality of care."