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In wake of veteran’s death, senator calls for investigation into state-licensed mental health facilities

November 23, 2017 GMT

LINCOLN — State Sen. Lynne Walz of Fremont called Tuesday for an investigation into state-licensed facilities for mentally ill Nebraskans that remain open despite repeated violations of state care standards.

Walz said her interest stems from a veteran’s Sept. 3 death at Life Quest at the Coolidge Center in Palmer.

The veteran, who suffered from mental illness and other health problems, was found dead in her room from an apparent fall. She had suffered uncontrollable vomiting and diarrhea for at least three days without treatment.

“I feel like this is a death that could have and should have been prevented,” Walz said. “These violations posed an immediate danger to the residents of Life Quest. Yet, there was no action until a tragedy happens.”

State Department of Health and Human Services inspectors had completed an inspection of the facility about a month before the veteran’s death.

They took no action until Oct. 5, when they revoked the facility’s license and issued an 81-page report detailing several instances of abuse and neglect of residents and numerous care deficiencies.

Courtney Phillips, the HHS chief executive officer, defended the agency, saying the HHS investigation resulted in the Palmer facility’s losing its license. She said HHS officials worked with numerous partners to find new housing for residents of the center.

Phillips said an investigative committee is unnecessary because HHS is undertaking an “after-action review” to see if there are ways the agency can improve and can collaborate further with law enforcement and others in similar situations.

She offered to brief Sen. Merv Riepe of Omaha and the Health and Human Services Committee that he chairs once the department’s review is complete.

Walz, however, said she plans to introduce a legislative resolution during the 2018 session that would create an investigative committee. The session starts Jan. 3 in Lincoln.

She wants the committee to look at the situation at the Palmer facility and also why Nebraska continues to rely on assisted living facilities and mental health centers that “segregate, congregate and, unfortunately, warehouse people with mental illness.”

“This is happening across Nebraska,” Walz said.

She said the state should work on developing more housing alternatives and services to help people live as independently as possible in the community.

Disability Rights Nebraska, an advocacy group, questioned earlier why the state did not act more quickly against the Palmer facility.

The advocacy group’s CEO, Eric Evans, also called for stronger state oversight of facilities that house people with mental illnesses.

The Palmer facility was the third such place in five years to be shut down because of abuse, neglect and mismanagement.

Another mental health center, Life Quest at Belle Amis in Blue Hill, was fined $10,000 and placed on a yearlong probation starting Nov. 4 for “multiple failures and repeated failures by the facility resulting in the potential for serious mental harm to all clients residing in the facility.”

The Blue Hill facility also had been sanctioned on Feb. 24, 2012, and May 7, 2013, for similar failures, according to HHS documents.

The most recent sanction was issued after state inspectors found that the facility did not provide appropriate treatment for residents, lacked adequate staff and was not maintained in a safe and sanitary manner.

Leah Bucco-White, an HHS spokeswoman, said the facility owner has requested an informal conference with state officials to talk about the sanctions. The meeting is set for Monday.

State records show that Life Quest at Belle Amis is owned by Nancy Stephens of Doniphan. The administrator is Laura Downing, who is the president of Life Quest at Belle Amis Inc.

State records list Stephens as the sole officer of Life Quest Inc., which owned the Palmer facility.

martha.stoddard@owh.com, 402-473-9583