Lawmakers call for investigations into Wesley Chapel psychiatric hospital

The calls for action follow a Tampa Bay Times report on problems inside North Tampa Behavioral Health
North Tampa Behavioral Health in Wesley Chapel
North Tampa Behavioral Health in Wesley Chapel [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Oct. 7, 2019

State and federal lawmakers are asking for reviews of North Tampa Behavioral Health after the Tampa Bay Times found that it exploits patients held under the state’s mental health law.

U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, sent a letter Thursday asking federal regulators to investigate the Wesley Chapel psychiatric hospital for possible misuse of taxpayer dollars.

Bilirakis pointed directly to patients and families who told the Times they were required to stay longer than allowed by law and received no psychiatric care.

“I know you share my desire to ensure all patients have access to high quality healthcare and mental health services and to stop any potential wrongful billing practices that may divert precious resources from vital programs like Medicare and Medicaid,” he wrote.

A spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services declined to comment.

Related: Read the investigation: How one Florida psychiatric hospital makes millions off patients who have no choice

Separately, State Rep. Randy Maggard, R-Dade City, said he asked the state Department of Children and Families and the Agency for Health Care Administration to investigate.

“We need expanded mental health treatment options in our community but those providing this important care must be held accountable to the highest standards,” he said in a statement.

The Agency for Health Care Administration, which licenses hospitals and mental health centers, said it was reviewing the newsroom’s findings.

The Department of Children and Families, which approves facilities to receive patients under the state’s mental health law, declined to comment.

State Sen. Tom Lee, a Thonotosassa Republican whose district includes Wesley Chapel, said his staff also reached out to the Agency for Health Care Administration. In addition, Lee suggested another office look into the situation.

“Some of the allegations made in this article to me warrant a referral to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida,” Lee said. “This is fraud.”

The U.S Attorney’s Office declined to comment.

In a statement, North Tampa Behavioral CEO Bryon Coleman Jr. said the hospital “strongly rejects any claim that it deliberately or willfully holds patients against their will absent a legitimate, clinically based determination by a licensed psychiatrist.”

Related: Read the North Tampa Behavioral's response to our investigation

Coleman said the Department of Children and Families reviewed the hospital’s compliance on Sept. 12 — days before the Times report published — and was “very pleased with our processes, culture and documentation.”

The hospital “absolutely welcomes the opportunity to collaboratively and transparently engage with all stakeholders to address and fully resolve any concerns and conclusively demonstrate (its) commitment to providing high quality, compassionate behavioral healthcare treatment,” he added.

Most of North Tampa Behavioral’s hospital’s admissions come from the Baker Act, which allows mental health centers to hold and evaluate people with mental illness who pose a threat to themselves or others.

The Times found that the hospital uses loopholes in the law to extend patients’ stays beyond the allowed 72 hours. Hundreds of patients have gotten stuck waiting for court hearings that never happened. Others have been pressured to sign up for longer commitments.

On average, patient stays at North Tampa Behavioral are days longer than those at similar centers in Pasco County, an analysis of state data showed.

The longer stays have proven to be lucrative: North Tampa Behavioral had the fourth highest profit margin of any Florida psychiatric hospital in 2017, the most recent year of published data. Most of the money came directly from government insurance programs like Medicare.

The Times also found that patients at North Tampa Behavioral have been left in danger. According to the hospital, there have been at least 72 serious incidents since it opened in October 2013, including assaults, injuries and runaway patients.

The Times detailed some of those cases: One patient attempted suicide after being left alone, even though doctors ordered constant supervision. Another was attacked in his sleep and required 11 stitches. One autistic man was kicked repeatedly in the head by a hospital employee.

The hospital has said it makes less than other psychiatric hospitals in the state and that its margins dropped in 2018. It called the safety incidents “regrettable but wholly non-representative temporary departures from the overall high level of quality clinical care.”

Read the letter from U.S. Rep. Bilirakis: