Politics & Government

State finds problems with Chehalis drug treatment facility

The state Department of Social and Health Services has cited American Behavioral Health Services for numerous deficiencies, according to findings documented in an audit obtained by The Chronicle this week. The audit, conducted in late October, cited the Chehalis drug treatment facility for alleged overcrowding, lack of patient histories and ongoing assessments, and having an insufficient number of qualified staff, among a long list of deficiencies.

ABHS officials have until Jan. 14 to submit a plan of corrections and implementation schedule to the Department of Social and Health Services. If they do not respond, the state will make the request a second time. If they still do not respond, the state has the authority to revoke or suspend the facility’s certification, according to Dennis Malmer, a spokesman for DSHS.

The Chronicle spoke briefly to Craig Phillips, president and CEO of ABHS, who also has a drug treatment facility in Spokane. He at first said he spoke to state officials who conducted the audit and said he was told "there were no deficiencies" and there were no state administrative codes ABHS was not meeting.

The Chronicle told Phillips the facility was not meeting some of the laws DSHS cited in the audit. Phillips responded he was on his way to a meeting and did not have a copy of the audit findings with him, and did not answer any further questions. He referred The Chronicle to Melissa Hood, an administrator for ABHS. Hood did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The audit consisted of a facility tour, interviews with the director and selected staff, a review of agency policies and procedures and program descriptions. It also examined personnel files and samples of patient records.

The issue drawing the most controversy seems to revolve around overcrowding. Mary Testa-Smith, one of several state certification specialists involved with the audit analysis, said ABHS has recently taken measures such as eliminating all outdoor activities, including walks and recreational sports, in response to numerous complaints from neighbors about inappropriate behavior from patients. Neighbors have complained of harassment and large groups of patients allowed outside during breaks seeming intimidating toward children and other residents.

Patients are required to keep their windows covered and are prohibited from looking outside, the audit said. A few windows have been shut so they can’t be opened.

"Patients are experiencing a ’significant negative impact,’" from those actions, Testa-Smith wrote. She noted one female patient said in order to get exercise, she must walk the full extent of her floor 40 times in order to walk one mile, but it is difficult to do because of crowded hallways. Another patient said he had considered starting smoking in order to go outside, as smokers are the only ones allowed to exit the building, Testa-Smith wrote.

"The situation coupled with current staffing levels acts to increase crowding and stress for patients and staff and thus indicates the potential for unsafe conditions for everyone in the facility," Testa-Smith wrote.

Keeping patients indoors still hasn’t improved the neighborhood, according to Jared Trodahl, who lives across the street from the facility. He was one of dozens of homeowners who attended a public meeting in October to voice their concerns about ongoing problems associated with the facility. The confrontations with ABHS patients have been so unbearable he and his wife, and at least three other homeowners who live directly across from the facility decided to sell their property.

Trodahl said since the October meeting, he’s noticed security guards outside the facility on the weekends, during the day and some hours of the night. But he wasn’t sure if they were on duty at all hours. He said there aren’t any more large groups of people, but the disturbances haven’t stopped.

He said curtains have been put up, but patients can still peek through windows. He said a neighbor who was breast-feeding her child said she saw one of the patients ogling her though a window. There have been other incidents where he had to call 9-1-1 because one of the patients was walking up and down the street screaming obscenities. He said smokers are still allowed to go outside and they still trespass into yards and flick cigarettes on lawns.

According to the treatment regimen at ABHS, patients can leave any time "at will."

"People come and go whenever they want," Trodahl said. "If I hear a noise outside, I’ve got to get up. I can’t sell my house because of ABHS. What are they (ABHS staff) going to do for us on this block?"

Before ending the phone interview with The Chronicle Thursday, Phillips did note several of the patients at the Chehalis facility were moved to a facility in Spokane in order to address complaints from neighbors, but said he did not have time to elaborate on any other issues. As of October, the facility had 111 employees and 194 patients. Phillips said he didn’t know how many employees or patients are currently at the facility.

The audit alleges the Chehalis facility "does not employ sufficient qualified personnel to provide adequate chemical dependency treatment services and other special needs of patients." It noted the facility’s program manager and clinical supervisor acknowledged it was understaffed and the positions were funded but had not yet been filled.