A state senator summoned the commissioner of the Department of Mental Health to his office after learning of the Channel 4 I-Team's findings into mistreatment of patients at the Middle Tennessee Mental Health Institute.
Sen. Doug Henry, D-Nashville, sits on the state health and welfare committee, which oversees state hospitals, including the state institution.
Last Thursday, Henry called the commissioner of mental health, Doug Varney, to his office after the Channel 4 I-Team shared with Henry our findings of patient mistreatment.
The Channel 4 I-Team found cases of patient mistreatment, including a patient touched sexually by a nurse, another nurse dumping a trash can of water on a patient's head, a nurse not checking on a patient's needing of intense observations for nearly an hour and a patient left alone long enough to drown himself.
"I think it's very distressing, you wouldn't want your family, or my family, in an institution where this kind of thing can happen to them," Henry said.
The Channel 4 I-Team wanted to interview Varney, given that his agency oversees operations at the institute.
Through a spokesman, Varney declined our requests for a sit-down interview, but the I-Team was waiting outside the meeting to try and get his reaction to our findings.
"I really don't have a comment to make," Varney said.
"The state obviously oversees this hospital. Are you concerned about what happened to these patients?" asked I-Team chief investigative reporter Jeremy Finley.
"I'm always concerned about what happens to our patients," Varney said.
"What about these specific cases?" Finley asked.
"These specific cases have been dealt with. They've been addressed," Varney said. "Our staff does a great job. These were isolated incidents. They were dealt with. Thank you."
But numbers just released by the state to the Channel 4 I-Team raised questions about just how isolated these incidents were.
In three years, 65 disciplinary actions have been handed down to employees of the institute who were either fired, suspended or disciplined for abuse, neglect or mistreatment of patients or failing to manage patients at risk.
The Channel 4 I-Team has filed open record requests to obtain those 65 disciplinary actions.
Just days ago, the Channel 4 I-Team obtained another disciplinary report concerning a charge nurse in September 2011.
The nurse was disciplined for losing track of a patient within the institution.
The disciplinary report stated that the patient was not brought back from what's called the treatment mall, where patients get therapy and have group sessions.
The report stated that the patient was left alone for hours until he was finally located at 7:25 p.m.
The reported also stated that the incident is very serious and demonstrates a weakness in staff accounting for patients' locations at all times.
A former employee of the institute, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she quit her job because of concern over lack of staff.
"It's getting crazy. It's getting out of hand. They don't have enough staff. Staffing is just an issue. And they've (the staff) brought that up. What we've been told is state budget cuts, you have to work with what you've got," the employee said.
And records from the state Department of Mental Health show 53 positions have been eliminated at the institution in recent years, including security guards, a security chief, two nurses and 14 psychiatric technicians who keep patients from injuring themselves or others.
Garrett Lawrence, a spokesman for the Department of Mental Health, stated in an email, "We have reviewed staffing patterns, and they are consistent with industry standards established by the Joint Commission. We consistently met or exceeded these standards in our hospitals."
As for what should happen to employees who mistreat patients, Henry said they should be terminated.
"My message was, I'd like to see them all gone, as soon as you can get rid of them, and he agreed," Henry said.
It is unclear how many people have been fired over what the Channel 4 I-Team has uncovered, but records show six employees have been fired in the past three years.
The Channel 4 I-Team has also learned staff are getting injured as well.
According to state injury reports from the institute, 120 staff members have been injured in three years.
Some of them were injured badly enough to be out for a year.
The reports do not explain how the employees were injured.
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