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    Judge: Care was adequate

    By CURTIS KRUEGER

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 30, 2001


    TAMPA -- In a rare legal and public relations victory for Florida's long-controversial G. Pierce Wood state hospital, a federal judge ruled this week that the state is providing adequate care for the mentally ill patients who live there.

    In spite of the endorsement, the Department of Children and Families still plans to close the hospital in April. It will accept no new patients after this weekend.

    But for a hospital that has been repeatedly hit with accusations of substandard care, including cases of unnecessary patient deaths, the ruling provided a detailed, documented conclusion that the hospital was serving its patients properly.

    "I think it was a resounding victory for the state defendants," said Chesterfield Smith Jr., an assistant attorney general who spent seven years on the case. "I think the employees of the G. Pierce Wood Hospital were vindicated."

    The lawsuit was filed by an American Civil Liberties Union attorney in 1987 on behalf of patients in the hospital. The U.S. Department of Justice joined the case in 1996.

    During a monthlong trial last year, attorneys argued that patients at G. Pierce Wood in Arcadia were inadequately supervised, not properly treated when they injured themselves and not protected from hazardous conditions and that the staff failed to properly investigate incidents in which patients were injured or not properly cared for. It also claimed patients did not receive proper mental health care in the hospital or after their release into communities including Tampa Bay and southwest Florida.

    U.S. District Judge Susan C. Bucklew disagreed on all points, saying that the hospital's performance in each case was adequate.

    "While the plaintiffs have offered evidence that mistakes have been made and that conditions and programs could be different or in some cases better," the judge wrote, they did not prove the whole system was inadequate.

    Also, the plaintiffs claimed the state was failing to place patients in community settings wherever possible, something required by the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. The judge said the plaintiffs had failed to prove that point.

    The hospital has gained notoriety for some terrible accidents, such as a patient who spent so much time in hot bath water that he later died of hyperthermia and another who hacked off both hands on a table saw.

    But Bucklew also noted that patients were injured at lower rates at G. Pierce Wood than the national average for psychiatric hospitals.

    James Green, the ACLU lawyer who filed the lawsuit 14 years ago, was disappointed in the ruling, but philosophical. The state last year decided to close the hospital and pour more than $30-million in extra money into the community mental health system for the 19-county area the hospital serves.

    "I think that the state has acted very responsibly in deciding to close the hospital and dramatically increase funding for the community programs," Green said.

    The Department of Justice is "discouraged by the ruling but encouraged that the state has closed the hospital and has allocated millions of dollars to improve community mental health care for current and former patients," spokesman Dan Miller said. Asked if the federal government might appeal, he said attorneys were "reviewing all our options."

    Children and Families Secretary Kathleen Kearney said her department would proceed with closing the hospital because mentally ill people can be treated in non-institutional, community settings closer to friends and family.

    "Large mental health institutions where people are segregated, where people are put out of the public eye, (are) not appropriate," she said.

    If the judge had ruled the other way and found the care was unacceptable, it is likely the court would have stepped in to order improvements. The existing ruling essentially means the state can proceed as planned with its redesign of the area mental health system.

    But it doesn't mean state officials are free from court scrutiny. A consent decree, which allows court-ordered monitors to review the system, will remain in place for now. State officials said they will petition the court and argue that review is no longer needed.

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