3:06pm: Hotline with Dave Weekley

Long-term care patient’s death from scalding whirlpool raises more oversight questions

An elderly, nonverbal man died after being placed in a hot whirlpool at a state-run facility, and the chairwoman of a legislative health committee says that’s a prime example of a case where lawmakers should be able to draw out more specific information behind the scenes.

Amy Summers

As it is, said House Health Committee Chairwoman Amy Summers, inquiries in open session usually elicit the same unsatisfying answer: the investigation is ongoing.

“We’ll get the same old response when we ask them.” Summers said in a telephone interview.

The state Department of Health Facilities reported in early January that a resident of Hopemont Hospital in Terra Alta suffered burns related to unsafe water temperatures resulting from the failure of a water tank. The man died.

Disability Rights West Virginia, a federally-sanctioned advocacy organization, investigated the situation since then and reported that the patient was an elderly man with dementia and that he was non-verbal.

The man was left for 47 minutes, unattended in a whirlpool with water temperature of at least 134 degrees, according to Disability Rights West Virginia.

Three contract workers and one employee of Hopemont were reported to investigators and no longer work at Hopemont, according to information provided by state officials today.

West Virginia Watch, an online news publication, focused on the death at Hopemont in a story headlined ‘His skin melted off’ — Elderly man in state care dies after being left in scalding water.

Summers said tragedies like the one at the long-term care Hopemont Hospital in Preston County often result in road blocks when lawmakers representing communities ask questions.

Summers, R-Taylor, said House Bill 4595 was meant to allow members of legislative oversight committees to go into private session and ask questions in real time about the state’s handling of cases. The bill passed the House of Delegates early on this most recent regular session but got hung up in the state Senate.

“It was a good bill, and it was one of our solutions to provide checks and balances on the system. Even though we couldn’t be public about it, we would have real time information,” Summers said.

Those questions, she said, could have included questions about hiring the staff at state facilities: “Are you doing background checks? Where did this person come from?”

The state Department of Health Facilities today said one resident of Hopemont was harmed by hot water in the Jan. 4 incident. The incident was originally attributed to a malfunctioning hot water tank thermostat, which was immediately replaced by facility staff.

Hopemont Hospital administration and DHF have taken steps to prevent future occurrences including providing staff training on monitoring water temperatures prior to and during resident bathing and making repairs and upgrades to the facility’s hot water system.

State officials said investigations the incident have been initiated by the Office of Health Facility Licensure and Certification, West Virginia Board of Registered Nurses, Adult Protective Services, Medicaid Fraud and Control Unit, and the Preston County Sheriff’s Department.

“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the resident’s family,” stated Matthew Keefer, deputy commissioner of the West Virginia Department of Health Facilities.

“Keeping residents safe is our number one priority. Any time a resident is injured in our care, we must exhaust every resource and investigate fully to ensure it does not happen again. That is what we have done in this case and what we will continue to do to ensure the safety and well-being of every patient in our care.”

Disability Rights West Virginia said at least 30 days before the patient was severely injured an internal Hopemont document raised concerns about scalding hot water and the likelihood that a resident could get burned.

The man who died required one-on-one care. Disability Rights West Virginia called his death a failure of the system and of state officials.

“There will never be change and needed improvements until the Governor and the Legislature demand accountability,” Michael Folio, legal director for Disability Rights West Virginia, said in an emailed statement to MetroNews.

“The Department of Health Facilities said improved staff training is needed.  What training must a health care provider receive to know that placing a person in scalding hot water is unsafe?   What training is necessary to have a health care provider watch their patient and not check their cellphone for 47 minutes?  What training is needed to know if water is scalding call a repairman?”

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