- The Washington Times - Monday, May 14, 2007

The D.C. government has settled a two-year Justice Department investigation into failing conditions at St. Elizabeths Hospital, agreeing to fix widespread staffing and patient care problems at the city-run mental institution.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty yesterday called the settlement “an acknowledgment that improvements need to be made at St. Elizabeths.”

A Justice Department report last year found “widespread deficiencies” inside the more than 150-year-old hospital in Southeast.

However, the findings did not result in fines or individual punishments.

The settlement, announced during a press conference inside the hospital’s chapel, was reached while the District continues to defend against another civil rights lawsuit filed by the watchdog group University Legal Services over patient deaths, assaults and staffing shortages.

The Justice Department settlement mandates dozens of deadlines for the District to make improvements in staffing, fire safety, treatment and other areas. It also includes the appointment of a compliance officer to oversee the reform efforts.

D.C. Council member David A. Catania, chairman of the council’s Committee on Health, which oversees the hospital, said it was “an embarrassment that [the reforms] haven’t happened until now.”

“This is a welcome day,” said Mr. Catania, at-large independent. But “this is not going to happen overnight.”

Stephen Baron, director of the D.C. Department of Mental Health, said officials also are working to improve services provided to patients in the community after they are released from the hospital.

Mr. Baron said St. Elizabeths should not be “a place for life … but a place for people to get treatment and move on.”

Peter Nickles, general counsel for the Fenty administration, said Janet Maher likely would be appointed compliance officer for St. Elizabeths. Miss Maher is a lawyer and an executive for the city’s Child and Family Services Agency who previously worked as a legal supervisor for the hospital.

Still, the settlement doesn’t end the District’s legal troubles concerning St. Elizabeths.

The federally chartered University Legal Services is pressing ahead with the federal lawsuit against the District to improve conditions at the hospital.

Last month, the group said one patient died, another appeared starved to death and there were hundreds of assaults amid worsening conditions during the past year.

Mr. Nickles said yesterday the Justice Department settlement renders the University Legal Services lawsuit “academic.”

He also said the improvements sought by the group are included in the Justice Department settlement. The District is expected to file a motion today seeking to dismiss the group’s lawsuit.

University Legal Services officials said they still have concerns about the Justice Department settlement.

“Obviously, we’re pleased they’re agreeing to act in accordance with the law, but we think it’s regrettable they didn’t choose to include us in the negotiations,” said Mary Nell Clark, the group’s staff attorney.

Miss Clark said many of the deadlines in the settlement appear too long. “They have 36 months to identify potential suicide hazards — that’s outrageous,” she said.

Miss Clark also said she was troubled by the District admitting no liability and that the agreement had no sanctions if problems are not resolved.

“We still think that what they’re agreeing to is tremendous,” Miss Clark said. “If they can do these things, it will be a different place.”

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