Probes of group homes urged

Sabatini targets operators said to abuse patients

`Behavior of worst kind'

August 19, 2004|By Sara Neufeld | Sara Neufeld,SUN STAFF

Maryland's top health official said yesterday that he is pushing for criminal and civil investigations of two Baltimore group home operators that engaged in abusive "behavior of the worst kind."

The state health department has moved to shut down both companies, Autumn Homes and Netcon & Earthkins, which were paid millions of dollars by the state to care for severely disabled residents.

But state Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini told The Sun he wants to go further.

"I want them to answer to every possible authority they can answer to," Sabatini said. "This is behavior of the worst kind. ... I'm not going to tolerate the abuse of vulnerable people."

Sabatini said he will order an audit of the services the companies provided as a step toward seeking repayment of government funds. Also, he is urging all "appropriate authorities" to explore filing charges, but he declined to be specific.

A state government source said the Maryland attorney general's office has initiated an investigation of possible Medicaid fraud by the companies. The office would not confirm or deny the existence of an investigation.

Sharon Krevor-Weisbaum, an attorney representing both companies - which are unrelated - declined to respond to Sabatini's statements and said she knew of no investigation. "I think it's very premature to discuss," she said, adding that "both agencies are cooperating fully with the department in the relocation of clients that they serve."

Both companies have operated homes for the developmentally disabled throughout the Baltimore region. Last month, after lengthy investigations, the director of the health department's Developmental Disabilities Administration ordered them to shut down. Yesterday, Netcon & Earthkins appealed the decision to the Office of Administrative Hearings.

Sabatini said all but one of Autumn Homes' 32 residents have been moved to group homes run by other operators. Sixteen Netcon & Earthkins residents have been moved, he said, and the state has found placements for, and is preparing to move, the additional 14.

The state banned new admissions to Autumn Homes last year after the death of a 46-year-old profoundly retarded resident, Toby Heller. Heller's caregivers did not follow up on a physician's July 2002 recommendation that a specialist evaluate her for, among other things, a tumor. By the time she was admitted to St. Agnes HealthCare in June last year, more than half her colon was cancerous, and she died a month later.

The state had paid Autumn Homes $127,672 a year to care for Heller in an Ellicott City group home.

In an article this month, The Sun documented several other occasions when Heller and her two retarded housemates were neglected or mistreated. Howard County police were called to the group home in July 2002 after a nurse found Heller with a black eye for the third time in two months. In August 2002, state inspectors found one of the housemates asleep on the floor while a caregiver slept in her bed. Two months later, the mother of the third housemate wrote to the state detailing a lack of necessities such as food and toothpaste.

Also, state investigators have repeatedly found that Autumn Homes residents did not receive recommended medical services - even after Heller's death. In April and again last month, inspectors found Autumn Homes residents months overdue for physician-recommended colonoscopies.

The investigators found that Netcon & Earthkins physically abused residents and had no system to account for residents' money.

In one case, according to state inspection reports, the company took nearly 12 hours to bring a resident to the hospital after she fell out of bed and broke her leg and was left screaming in pain. In another case, an employee threw onto the floor a retarded woman having an outburst and held her face down with her knee in the resident's back. The employee then encouraged two other residents to hit the woman while she was on the floor.

Officials from both companies said at hearings last month before state health officials that they did their best to care for residents who are exceptionally difficult to serve.

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