- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 15, 2005

The D.C. government is asking a federal judge to disregard e-mails, faxes, memos and letters that a watchdog organization refers to as evidence of severe understaffing and unsanitary conditions at the city-run mental health hospital.

The D.C. Office of the Attorney General on Friday called the recent documents filed by University Legal Services Inc. “vague, anecdotal observations” that should be deemed inadmissible.

University Legal Services, a federally designated protection agency that advocates for people with disabilities in the District, is seeking from U.S. District Court an injunction for “immediate staffing remediation” at St. Elizabeths Hospital in Southeast.

In March, the group sued the hospital and city officials, saying St. Elizabeths is overcrowded, understaffed and plagued with rodents, fire hazards and crumbling infrastructure.

Since then, the group has filed hundreds of pages of memos, e-mails, faxes and statements from patients, employees and consultants to provide an insider’s account of the hospital’s problems.

Lillian Kyler, a nurse who recently retired from the hospital, stated recently in court documents that she has suffered respiratory problems because of poor ventilation at the facility.

“The wards … are dirty and dusty, and the vents have not been cleaned in years,” she said. “Rodents have always been a big problem. … I worked the night shift and no one would answer the rodent hot line at night.”

D.C. officials are asking U.S. District Court Judge Rosemary M. Collyer to disregard such statements as “hearsay and vague.”

“The District has no means to respond factually to the vague, unsupported allegations,” attorneys for the District wrote in the legal document filed Friday.

There is also a dispute over the findings of a consultant for University Legal Services, who, in a 28-page report filed last month, concluded, “The patients and staff at St. Elizabeths are at serious risk of immediate harm as a result of … substandard care.”

Dr. Scott Stiefel, a physician at the University Neuropsychiatric Institute at the University of Utah, said his review of St. Elizabeths’ records showed that “multiple patients have died, suffered serious injury and have not received adequate treatment” at the facility.

Attorneys for the District argued Friday that Dr. Stiefel did not visit the hospital, interview staff or review individual patient records.

“Dr. Stiefel admits that he did not visit St. Elizabeths … yet he freely opines on adequacy of treatment and risk of harm to patients at St. Elizabeths,” the attorneys wrote.

The hospital is at 2700 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE.

Concerns about St. Elizabeths are surfacing at a time when city officials say they are preparing to build a new mental health hospital for $105 million to $110 million.

Founded in 1855, St. Elizabeths was the federal government’s hospital for the mentally ill.

It fell into disrepair as patient levels steadily dropped from 7,000 in the 1940s to about 450 today.

The federal government transferred hospital operations to the city in the late 1980s.

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