By Ronnie Cohen
SAN FRANCISCO, May 2 (Reuters) - Nevada health officials acknowledged on Thursday that a state-run hospital improperly bused 10 newly discharged psychiatric patients out of the state with deficient plans for their care, while Los Angeles launched a criminal probe into the alleged "patient dumping."
Rawson-Neal Psychiatric Hospital has been under fire since last month, after a Sacramento Bee investigative series reported that hospital staff gave as many as 1,500 patients one-way Greyhound bus tickets from Las Vegas to California and 46 other states over the past five years.
"If the conduct is true as alleged, it's no less than human trafficking," Los Angeles City Attorney Carmen Trutanich told Reuters, adding he was working with San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera, who last month opened an investigation into the practice.
"We have to find the individuals who were dumped. We're working on it. It's like finding a needle in a haystack," Trutanich said.
Nevada health and human services spokeswoman Mary Woods said an internal investigation showed this week that 10 of the patients were put on buses with inadequate plans for housing and continued medical treatment.
Woods said Nevada health officials had fired two Rawson-Neal employees and would discipline three others following an internal investigation. She blamed nine medical staff members for the 10 improper discharges, and said four had stopped working at the facility before the investigation.
The hospital has also come under federal scrutiny. Federal authorities warned Rawson-Neal last week it was in violation of Medicare rules governing the discharge of patients and could lose critical funding under the federal program, which provides healthcare for the elderly and disabled.
The hospital has referred comment on the matter to state health officials
TEN PATIENTS LACKED ADEQUATE SUPPORT
Twenty-one members of Congress in a letter dated on Tuesday, urged U.S. Attorney Eric Holder and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius to investigate "allegations that mental health providers in Nevada are transporting vulnerable individuals with serious mental illnesses across state lines."
Over the past five years, Woods said Rawson-Neal purchased 1,473 one-way bus tickets for newly discharged psychiatric patients. Of those, she said, 10 lacked documentation outlining they had adequate care plans in place. There was no immediate word on the whereabouts of all the patients involved.
Nine of the 10 had previously been admitted to the psychiatric facility's observation unit because of problems stemming from substance abuse, she said.
Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval issued a statement saying he had received proposals from mental health experts "to provide an objective and comprehensive analysis of our state facilities to ensure that best practices are being implemented and followed."
"As I have stated before, improperly discharging one patient is one patient too many," he said. "It is important to me and all Nevadans that we treat our most vulnerable members of society with dignity and care."
Rawson-Neal last month began sending chaperones on out-of-state bus rides with psychiatric patients, Woods said. The hospital also tightened its oversight of discharge plans.
U.S. Representative Ami Bera of California drafted the letter to Holder and Sebelius.
"If this practice of shipping patients with a history of mental illness to other states, known colloquially as 'Greyhound Therapy,' is occurring," the Democrat wrote, "it would not only be unethical and disgraceful, but would also be an illegal attempt by Nevada to evict members of the state's most vulnerable population to benefit its bottom line." (Editing by Cynthia Johnston)