Las Encinas

Aurora Las Encinas Hospital in 2009. (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times / January 13, 2009)

Aurora Las Encinas Hospital had evidence that a staff member had “inappropriate sexual contact” with a male patient and yet the facility failed to report the incident to county mental health officials, according to court documents.

Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health investigators determined that the Pasadena psychiatric hospital did not provide “adequate medical or mental health treatment” to the patient, who had post-traumatic stress disorder and a history of sexual and physical abuse, the 2011 department report said.

The alleged incident was one of several described in investigative reports released by the county department as part of a whistle-blower lawsuit against the hospital. The lawsuit, filed in 2010 by a former mental health worker, alleged that company officials defrauded the federal government by providing “substandard care” to patients.

The hospital, known for decades as a place for wealthy and famous patients to seek care for mental health problems and drug and alcohol abuse, is accredited by the Joint Commission and has 118 licensed acute care beds and 38 residential treatment beds. Federal authorities have demanded changes at Las Encinas after several reports by The Times beginning in 2008, about patient deaths and an alleged rape of a teenage girl. THe hospital has said it has made improvements.

Patients at Las Encinas are at no greater risk than patients at any other acute psychiatric hospital, said Patric Hooper, one of the hospital’s attorneys. “The hospital is constantly, constantly striving to lower the risk and to provide the best patient care possible,” he said. Tragically, he said, incidents can occur at “even the best facilities.”

“All you can do is try to respond to them and make certain you correct anything that needs correcting.... That is what they have always tried to do at this facility.”

The director of nursing told an investigator that the facility had not reported the incident to the police or the county Mental Health Department, according to the documents. The department said in an interview that hospitals must report all alleged incidents of injury or abuse to the agency within 24 hours.

In the 2011 case, the patient called the Department of Mental Health and told officials that a staff member had abused him and sent him sexually suggestive text messages, according to the report. The patient also reported the alleged abuse to the Pasadena Police Department. Hospital officials acknowledged that they had copies of the text messages, the report said.

In the investigative report, the Department of Mental Health concluded that the hospital had evidence that supported the allegations and “did not act in a timely manner” to address the needs of the patient. Hooper said this week that the report was preliminary and unverified and that officials later concluded that no sexual abuse occurred. Hopper said he could not provide more details because of privacy reasons.

The court documents also included reports of alleged assaults that, investigators wrote, might have been prevented if patients were better supervised.

A female patient allegedly assaulted two fellow patients, causing one to fall and fracture her hand, according to a 2011 report in the court documents. Even though the patient was hearing voices and was at “high risk for violence,” the hospital decided not to put her on a one-on-one observation because it would have agitated her further, the documents said.

The Department of Mental Health determined that the patient should have been more closely supervised because she presented a danger to others. At the least, the investigator wrote, she should have been put under one-on-one supervision after the first incident.

“Had that been done, the second assault may have been prevented,” the report read.

In another case described in a 2012 report, a psychotic male patient with a history of violence allegedly walked up to a fellow patient who was eating lunch and hit him in the face, resulting in the victim having to get stitches. The Department of Mental Health determined that the hospital didn’t provide adequate supervision. It wasn’t until the next day when he punched a social worker that the hospital provided the one-on-one supervision, the documents said.

The Department of Mental Health directed the hospital in 2012 to develop policies to better evaluate patients' potential for aggression.

The investigative reports show that the hospital hasn’t taken the steps necessary to keep patients safe, said Colleen Flynn, the attorney representing former mental health worker Shelby Eidson in an employee whistle-blower suit. The suit alleges that Las Encinas is violating its agreement with Medicare and Medicaid to provide quality care and seeks damages both for the federal government and Eidson.

“These documents show that patients at Las Encinas are still at risk,” Flynn said. “We will continue with our case to try to hold them accountable and return to the government money that the hospital fraudulently billed.”

But Kathleen Kim, a Loyola Law School professor who is a member of the Las Encinas board of directors, said the hospital is well-regarded and “incredibly committed to patient care and patient safety.” Any incidents that may have occurred in the past were isolated, said Kim, whose father owns the hospital's parent company.

The ongoing litigation, Kim said, has “exposed in an insensitive way the complexities of acute mentally ill patients and the complexities of acute psychiatric care in a public forum.”

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anna.gorman@latimes.com