The state is dropping the ball for Duval County mental health patients.
An Action News Jax Investigation uncovered that nearly 98 percent of people who have been involuntarily committed in Duval County are not getting the hearings they’re entitled to by law -- hearings that could set them free.
Since Action News Jax originally started reporting on issues at River Point Behavioral Health and Wekiva Springs Center two months ago, we’ve heard from dozens of patients who say they were held longer than medically necessary so that those businesses could milk their insurance.
Both Jacksonville facilities are owned by national chain Universal Health Services.
In a vast majority of cases, the court system is not providing the checks and balances required by law to prevent this from happening.
“It’s me going against a corporation and who’s going to believe me?” said Jacksonville Marine Corps veteran Steve Smith.
That’s why Smith hasn’t come forward until now.
During a rough patch in 2014, he made a comment to his fiancée.
“I think what I had said was, ‘If anything happens, take care of my dog,’” said Smith.
Smith was involuntarily committed to River Point under Florida’s Baker Act.
Smith’s psychiatric evaluation said he denied being suicidal, but the notes called his potential for suicide, homicide or violence “moderate.”
River Point kept Smith for nine days. River Point charged more than $10,000 for his time there.
“You started to see a pattern kind of develop where they’re bringing people in that didn’t have insurance and they’d be gone within two or three days. But people that had insurance, you know, they were there longer,” said Smith.
By Florida law, if a facility like River Point wants to extend a Baker Acted patient’s involuntary commitment beyond 72 hours, that patient is entitled to a hearing within five days.
Action News Jax’s public records requests revealed that’s not happening.
State Attorney’s Office records show the average wait is 58 days -- and that’s only for people who got a hearing.
Duval County Clerk of Court records show that in 2015, only 0.7 percent of patients got a hearing at all.
“We need to have more hearings,” said Jeff Davenport, who took over mental health cases at the State Attorney’s Office in 2016.
Since then, the number of hearings tripled to 2.2 percent.
When asked if the lack of hearings could allow people to be held against their will for longer than medically necessary, Davenport responded, “I think that’s definitely a concern.”
Davenport and former Civil Division Chief Andrew Kantor have now issued an administrative order streamlining the process, requiring all facilities to file petitions to keep patients longer electronically.
There’s also video conferencing for hearings.
“Certainly, there can always be room for improvement. But I think we have the basis to do better for those that are subject to a mental illness. They need our help,” said Kantor.
Help that a woman who once held elected office in our area said she didn’t get when she was Baker Acted at River Point.
“There was a woman in the bed next to me that had been in there for some time. She says, ‘You must have good insurance.’ And I said, ‘Why? Why do you say that?’ She says, ‘Let’s see how long you stay, because if you’ve got insurance, you’re going to be in there for a while.’ And I said, ‘Oh God, no, please. Please, no,’” said the woman, who asked not to be identified because her family members still hold public office.
River Point, Wekiva Springs and their parent company Universal Health Services have been under federal investigation since 2013.
In 2014, Medicare and Medicaid payments were suspended.
Smith said the investigation brings him a sense of relief.
“When you put profit over patient care, somebody in some office somewhere forgets that there’s lives that hang in the balance,” said Smith.
Action News Jax has tried repeatedly to get River Point and Wekiva Springs to give their sides of the story.
Representatives of both facilities declined to give on camera interviews.
River Point sent Action News Jax the following statement:
“River Point takes seriously the care that we provide to patients, and we have always worked to comply with all laws and regulations including appropriate Baker Act procedures. We deny and dispute any assertions to the contrary. The recent letter from the State of Florida, Department of Children and Families which evaluated our facility finds that we are in compliance with the Baker Act. Due to stringent patient confidentiality and privacy laws, the hospital is precluded from discussing details regarding the care and treatment of any patient. We intend to continue to provide quality mental health services to the residents of the region.”
Five former patients are now pursuing lawsuits against River Point and Wekiva Springs.
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