Bills would help protect patients

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Two Texas senators seek to ramp up patient protection at the state’s psychiatric hospitals with unfortunately necessary legislation.

In separate bills, Sens. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, and Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, take aim at closing gaps in the system that exposed patients to abuse and neglect. Both are veteran senators, and Nelson leads the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.

Over the past 16 months, the Austin American-Statesman’s Andrea Ball and Eric Dexheimer have been aggressively reporting on reports of abuse of patients in the state’s psychiatric facilities. Their articles are a clarion call for action.

The two senators are taking that needed action to plug gaps in patient protection that have been allowed to exist for too long.

As we have noted previously, patient complaints about abuse resulted in internal inquiries but seldom ended in disciplinary action.

Dr. Charles Fischer, a child psychiatrist, was indicted on 23 charges of sexual abuse of patients in his care. Before the indictment in 2012, Fischer was the subject of numerous complaints but nonetheless stayed on the state payroll.

Fischer had bounced around the state system since finding state employment in the 1990s. Fischer worked at a number of institutions including the Waco Center for Youth, the Southwest Neuropsychiatric Institute in San Antonio, Lutheran Social Services Residential Treatment Center for Girls and Central Counties Mental Health and Mental Retardation.

The Texas Medical Board, the state licensing authority, revoked Fischer’s medical license in 2011. Fischer maintains his innocence.

Zaffirini’s bill requires the Department of State Health Services, the agency that oversees the state hospitals, to keep track of abuse complaints against professional staff.

The agency has already adopted a rule to that effect, but Zaffirini’s bill — if passed as it should — would make that rule a law. Zaffirini’s bill would put professionals who harm patients on the misconduct registry and would bar them from employment at state hospitals or schools. There is no such registry now.

Nelson’s legislation would create an independent ombudsman position in the state hospital system, a long overdue step in protecting patients who are at the mercy of professionals and staff. The ombudsman would assess patient care at the 10 state-run psychiatric facilities.

Nelson’s bill would require additional training for employees and criminal background checks. It would also give investigators with the inspector general’s office commissioned peace officers who would be able to officially question suspects and have access to confidential information.

“These patients are in the care of the state and are one of the most vulnerable populations we serve. We have a responsibility to keep them safe and away from harm,” Nelson said.

That should be elemental but, as the experiences with Fischer show, is much easier said than done.

Such lapses in patient protection are not only legally troubling but should pick at the conscience of those directly involved, of Capitol decision-makers and all Texans in whose name this care is delivered.

Ideally, it should not take a law to protect people in the state’s care. Experience is a harsh tutor, though. It teaches that the world is far from ideal when it comes to protecting this most vulnerable population.

Austin American-Statesman

 


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