Response to patient dumping evolves


At least the mental patients were put on a bus. On Monday, two state mental health workers were thrown beneath it.

Under the increasingly embarrassing glare of a patient-dumping scandal that strikes at the heart of much of what is wrong with Nevada’s overwhelmed social service network, Gov. Brian Sandoval announced that two employees were fired and four others no longer were employed at the state’s Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital.

The move follows an official review that revealed a small number of more than 1,500 patients released in the past five years from the hospital and sent out of state wound up in places where they had no personal contacts.

Although the Sacramento Bee’s story of James F. Brown’s arrival in the California capital triggered increased scrutiny of Nevada’s tradition of “Greyhound therapy,” the initial reaction to the issue by state officials and the governor himself was a cross between a yawn and denial.

Day after day, as the patient dumping story heated up, no one in popular Republican Sandoval’s political inner circle appeared to smell smoke on the issue. Now he is hopping around like a man with his pants on fire: Stop, drop and roll, governor. Stop, drop and roll.

In a Monday statement, Sandoval said, “Over the weekend, I reviewed the results of the investigation into patients transported out of state. All individuals who violated release policies have been or will be disciplined. These disciplinary actions include terminations effective today. While the investigation showed the vast majority of patient releases were done correctly, it also revealed policies were not followed by certain individuals. I will continue to evaluate the need for further action if necessary.”

Sandoval declined to say whether mortifying headlines, increased catcalls from the state Democratic Party or the surfacing of a potential challenger to his incumbency would be part of his continued evaluation; but his administration’s handling of the patient dumping issue smacks of attempted damage control practiced by mediocre political mechanics.

Did I say the Democrats were having a field day?

State party spokesperson Zach Hudson has jammed media email in boxes with damning press and cynical slams.

Hudson’s response to the latest Sandoval statement: “Given that almost every assertion made by the Sandoval Administration on patient dumping has later proven to be false, this self-policed ‘report’ has as much credibility as Rawson-Neal does on the proper discharge of patients. Considering reports surfaced last week of new allegations of patient dumping after the governor claimed he had taken ‘corrective action,’ Governor Brian Sandoval has proven yet again that he cannot be trusted and Nevadans should be skeptical of anything he says on the scandal.”

Ouch.

Hudson’s pointed protestations aside, as long as Sandoval’s machine is able to keep the field clear of challengers, the governor’s perceived political pratfalls won’t cost him much more than a red face.

Cutting through the alarmist rhetoric, the fact is mental health issues have seldom been a hill worth fighting over for Democrats, either.

Mental health has long been one of the first areas cut whenever a governor of either party looks for places to cut the state budget.

From Sandoval’s Monday memo:

“In addition, we have obtained proposals from national experts in the mental health field to provide an objective and comprehensive analysis of our state facilities to ensure that best practices are being implemented and followed.”

That’s funny. I thought that was Department of Health and Human Services Director Michael Willden’s job. In the rush to appear to be doing something about a complex problem, Sandoval has again made himself appear naïve about the stark realities at state mental health.

In Sunday’s column, former state psychologist Ed Loughlin said the bus-ticket treatment existed throughout his 18-year tenure at the mental health facility, which began in 1975. Patients were sometimes dropped downtown and trusted to find their way home.

Sandoval: “As I have stated before, improperly discharging one patient is one patient too many. It is important to me and all Nevadans that we treat our most vulnerable members of society with dignity and care.”

Sure, it’s important.

But will Sandoval press to improve Nevada’s mental health system after the damaging headlines fade?

John L. Smith’s column appears Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. E-mail him at jsmith@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0295.