House Health chair: Legislators missed chance to ask questions after death in state facility whirlpool

Delegate Amy Summers, chairwoman of the House Health Committee, says legislators would have benefited from hearing testimony about West Virginia health care facilities, in particular about the horrifying death of a resident at a long-term care facility.

Amy Summers

However, Summers said in an opinion piece distributed to West Virginia news outlets, a legislative oversight meeting was canceled and lawmakers could not hear from Michael Caruso, secretary for the Department of Health Care Facilities, or John Pritt, a representative for Hopemont Hospital.

“When Legislative Oversight Commission on Health and Human Resources Accountability (LOCCHRA) members were told the scheduled speakers for our April 16 meeting would not be available to discuss critical issues and long-term planning for our state-owned health facilities, I reached out to Secretary Caruso without success,” wrote Summers, R-Taylor.

She wanted to hear more about capital improvement needs at state-run facilities. That’s a timely question because human services allocations could be at the center of a special legislative session being considered for late next month.

“We have practically begged the newly separated departments of health to show and tell us where additional funds are necessary, and this most recent opportunity to do so was wasted,” Summers wrote.

Fixes for state-run facilities are also a focal point after an elderly, nonverbal man died after being placed in a hot whirlpool at Hopemont. The state Department of Health Facilities reported in early January that the resident suffered burns related to unsafe water temperatures resulting from the failure of a water tank.

Learning more about conditions at state-run facilities and considering how to help fix them is a key part of legislative responsibility, Summers wrote.

“How can the West Virginia Legislature comprehend the state’s most dire problems, let alone look for the solutions to them, without information?” she wrote.

“How do I know if the $90,000 increase in the budget line item for maintenance and repairs to Hopemont is enough to solve a problem that led to a patient burned so badly it resulted in his death? I refuse to accept this type of care as the care a West Virginia-owned facility, or any facility, provides!”

She continued, “Tears come to my eyes when I think of the pain a nonverbal, elderly man suffering from dementia must have endured sitting in scalding water for over 45 minutes. If we are expected to allocate and adjust state funds during a May special session, we should be clear about where those funds are desperately needed well before we gavel in.”

Summers wrote that she has asked legislative staff to coordinate on-site visits to all health facilities owned by the state, starting with Hopemont.

Roger Hanshaw

House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, speaking on MetroNews’ “Talkline” also described the desire for an on-site visit by lawmakers to Hopemont. Hanshaw said he wasn’t certain why the oversight committee meeting that had been scheduled for earlier this week was canceled.

“To be clear, I don’t know. My understanding is that one or more of the presenters we had on our agenda for the meeting earlier this week, for whatever reason or another, couldn’t testify at the time that we had set up to schedule with them,” said Hanshaw, R-Clay. “So without presenters being available to attend the meeting, we just didn’t have the meeting.

“We’ve decided instead to exercise oversight responsibility by actually going out to the facility.”

Michael Folio

Michael Folio, legal director for Disability Rights West Virginia, had been one of the originally scheduled speakers for this week’s legislative oversight meeting.

Folio said state officials, including the Legislative Oversight Commission on Health and Human Resources Accountability, should focus on fixing substantive issues.

“If LOCHHRA is serious about getting to the bottom of the horrific avoidable death of the Hopemont resident, LOCHHRA should invite Sec. Caruso and me to appear before the commission and address under oath the criminal misconduct by state facility staffers, deficient patient care, and patient abuse and neglect,” Folio said after being asked about Summers’s public statements.

“If Sec. Caruso refuses to appear voluntarily, LOCHHRA should exercise its statutory powers and serve him with a subpoena to appear.”

Gov. Jim Justice

Gov. Jim Justice was asked during a news briefing this week about the cancellation by reporter Amelia Knisely of West Virginia Watch: “Can you discuss why this meeting was canceled, and was it any effort to hide these details from the public? And what do you think needs to be done to prevent future incidents like this at our state-run hospitals?”

The governor said he was miffed by the question.

“I could take big-time offense about your question because I’m not going to cover anything up. There’s no possible way. No way. The other thing is, I don’t control and cancel legislative meetings,” Justice said.

“The other thing is, just this: From the standpoint of what’s going on and we lost a life and everything, it’s surely under investigation. From the standpoint of the legalities, I can’t talk about that and everything. But no one on the planet is going to take things like this more seriously than me, and there’s no chance on the planet that we’re ever, ever under any circumstances going to cancel something, cover anything up.”

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