Judge: State hospital retaliated against complaining patients

? A district judge is threatening officials at Larned State Hospital with contempt, saying they are ignoring his order to stop cracking down on two patients who complained about hospital conditions.

Those complaints, as well as ones filed by several others, led to a round of inspections that found more than 150 health and safety violations at the facility for noncriminal psychiatric patients and children with mental illnesses.

Right to complain

Shawnee County Judge Frank J. Yeoman determined on May 1 that Mark Brull and Garan Stockwell, patients in the hospital’s sexual predator treatment program, had a constitutional right to complain about hospital conditions and officials at Larned had “started down the wrong path” in trying to dissuade them from making further complaints.

He acknowledged that the men, Brull especially, had a history of making complaints and had not been formally blocked from taking their complaints to court. But he also noted that administrators have restricted their privileges and forced them into certain forms of treatment until they stop making complaints.

“The secretary (of the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services) and the treatment staff … are hereby ordered to cease their efforts to force Brull and Stockwell to give up their right to file their grievances and have access to the courts and enjoined from continuing such efforts,” the judge wrote.

Hospital attorneys argued that the restrictions were part of the men’s rehabilitation and caused by their not cooperating with their treatment – a stance the judge dismissed.

“If the patient’s right to access to the courts is a right protected by the constitution, then exercising that right by either pursuing legal action or threatening to do so cannot reasonably be regarded as a disease or condition properly subject to correction by use of ‘treatment,'” Yeoman wrote.

Attorneys for the two men said at about the same time as Yeoman’s order, the hospital installed a new series of security ratings that denied privileges to the two men that other patients in their stage of treatment were getting, such as the ability to go on supervised outings, using the refrigerator or having canned soda.

Yeoman plans to have a hearing soon where Larned officials must show why they shouldn’t be found in contempt for not following his order.

Larned officials have declined to comment because the case is continuing, other to say they believe the judge’s ruling actually vindicated them of charges that they retaliated against the patients.

“We do not punish individuals in the sexual predator unit for filing complaints,” said spokeswoman Abbie Hodgson. “It is our interpretation the judge found we did not do that, but he did order us not to do that.”

Kip Elliot, a lawyer representing patient Mark Brull, disagrees with that view.

“I think the judge’s last order where he restored them (to their previous status in the program) pretty much says it all,” Elliot said.

Violations found

Larned officials have been in defensive mode since a series of inspections, beginning last fall, uncovered a number of state and federal violations involving cleanliness, maintenance and patient supervision.

The most serious violation found by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment involved a psychiatric patient with a swallowing disorder choking to death on pancakes, which inspectors said was due to poor supervision.

Hospital officials have defended the management of Larned, telling state lawmakers in January that they had fixed most of the deficiencies of sanitation and maintenance cited in the inspections.

Hospital superintendent Mark Schutter denied the choking death was because of poor supervision. He said staff members had a dietary plan for the patient and simply couldn’t clear her mouth and throat in time.

The hospital has since hired a new dietitian and purchased a suction machine, he said.

The results of a reinspection of the hospital in April are not yet public. But the hospital remains on conditional status for the Joint Commission, a national hospital accreditation panel, which reduced Larned from full accreditation based on a separate inspection.

Meanwhile, the court action is cheering critics of Larned, who have long had concerns about the hospital’s operation and hope the current focus will improve care for patients.

“My concern all along has been that the complaints are indicative of a much larger and much broader problem,” said state Sen. Susan Wagle, R-Wichita, who leads the Senate Health Care Strategies Committee. “There seems to be serious problems within the management of that facility, and I think there needs to be some accountability.”