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  1. Opinion

The Baker Act is supposed to protect patients, not profits | Editorial

The state should investigate North Tampa Behavioral’s treatment of its patients and the profits the hospital made at their expense.
An exterior of North Tampa Behavioral Health in Wesley Chapel taken May 19, 2019. [JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times]
Published Sep. 27

A patient admitted to a Florida mental health facility under the Baker Act is vulnerable, judged to be a threat to himself or others -- or in self-neglect -- and unable to make decisions regarding his own care. In allowing a person’s liberty to be denied for up to 72 hours pending an evaluation, the state carries an immense burden of ensuring proper treatment and that no person is held a minute longer than medically necessary. A troubling Times investigation about North Tampa Behavioral Health calls for more vigorous state oversight to ensure patients’ rights are fully respected. The Baker Act is intended to protect patients, not make them profit centers.

The Tampa Bay Times’ Neil Bedi found that North Tampa Behavioral makes huge profits by exploiting patients held under the Baker Act. He reported that the hospital cuts patients off from their families and often abuses provisions of the law to hold patients longer than the minimum time, running up their bills -- up to $1,500 a night -- while they are unable to fight back or seek outside help.

Under state law, a patient is free to go after 72 hours unless a mental health center has petitioned a judge to extend the stay. The judge then has five work days to rule. Records show that North Tampa Behavioral filed 592 such petitions last year -- and dropped 86 percent of them before the hearing. That meant patients’ bills grew while they awaited a hearing that never happened. Some patients describe getting virtually no psychiatric treatment at all. Three years ago, two suicidal patients were able to hang themselves, even though the hospital is supposed to provide special monitoring. Both survived. Last year, two patients reported sexual assaults at the hospital. In the past six years, North Tampa Behavioral has been cited 72 times for unsafe conditions and code violations, more than all but one other psychiatric hospital in Florida.

Since 2014, North Tampa Behavioral quickly increased the number of Baker Act patients it admitted, and the hospital’s revenues have grown at the same time. It made $17 million last year in net annual revenue, mostly from taxpayer-funded insurance programs like Medicare. Admitting Baker Act patients has proven lucrative for the hospital, as has prolonging their stays.

The Baker Act guarantees family members “immediate access” to patients. But the families of 10 former patients at North Tampa Behavioral told the Times that they weren’t allowed to see their relatives, which experts say is illegal. They say the hospital insisted they come during one of the two hour-long windows reserved each week for visitors.

In a statement, CEO Bryon Coleman Jr. “strongly rejects any claim that (the hospital) deliberately or willfully holds patients against their will absent a legitimate, clinically based determination.” He added that decisions to extend stays are never “driven by financial motivations and/or any type of nefarious intent.” But the statistics speak for themselves.

The hospital’s troubling record calls for an immediate state investigation. The Florida Department of Children and Families, which designates Baker Act receiving facilities, and the Agency for Health Care Administration, which licenses them, both have key oversight roles to play. Gov. Ron DeSantis should make sure the two agencies are comparing their data bases to identify problems and solve them.

But more important, the state should resurrect the Statewide Advocacy Council -- and its parallel local councils -- which all were defunded nine years ago. When it was in operation, the council had the right under state law to speak with any Baker Act patient and access their records and acted as a check on institutional overreach on treatment of vulnerable patients. The Legislature should also close any loopholes and clarify the rights of patients to have access to family and lawyers. Practices such as limiting any visitation to one-hour slots twice a week should be patently illegal.

The Baker Act is an important safeguard for those who might harm themselves or others. It is incumbent on the state to ensure that the law is used to protect patients, not profits.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Tim Nickens, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news


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