It's horrifying to see video of staffers at the Cherry mental health facility in Goldsboro playing cards, watching television, talking on cell phones, even dancing around as a patient sat nearby – unnoticed and dying. It's unconscionable and criminal that those employees lied to investigators and falsified medical records to cover up their lack of care.
But they did, according to a recently released state internal review of the death. Tuesday, the hospital security video that captured the events was released. The grainy footage is sobering evidence of the vulnerable position mental patients are in, and of the vital need for diligent, competent and responsible workers to care for them.
That's not the kind of care Steven Sabock got. Both the video and internal review highlight unacceptable negligence.
Sabock sat in a chair for more than 22 hours without food or water, with staffers virtually ignoring him. Earlier, he had choked on medicine and then, when he fell and hit his head, a report said a nurse left it to a health care technician to try to save him.
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The video shows that at least 16 staffers responsible for his care failed to recognize he was in distress until it was too late. The state's review says employees lied to investigators and falsified Sabock's medical records to show that they had provided care that the video proves they did not.
An autopsy concluded that Sabock, who had bipolar disorder, died of a heart condition. But records show the medical examiner was given false information about the patient's condition in his final hours, including fabricated measurements of his vital signs. The hospital's report on the death also omits any mention of his choking or falling.
Such negligence and cover-ups are appalling. But to its credit, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services has taken some action on this matter. In a written statement Wednesday, officials said three employees were fired, one received a five-day suspension, four received three-day suspensions and five employees received written warnings. Two others resigned. Those who remain are in a retraining program and have been moved to jobs outside the ward where Sabock died, officials said.
It's not clear yet whether the punishments went far enough, or high enough. The Sabock case leaves anyone with a family member in a state mental facility with reason to question whether staffers are being diligent about that family member's care. Patients' families deserve assurance from state officials that care is adequate, and that employees who don't provide sufficient care are held accountable.
An earlier report showed that Cherry staffers disregarded their own standards and policies for care. This and other incidents led the federal government to pull the hospital's certification in September and halt Medicare and Medicaid payments, a loss of about $800,000 a month.
We said in September that these alarming violations of policy and standards jeopardize patient safety and beg for the creation of an independent watchdog office to act quickly and forcefully as a patient advocate. The video of Steven Sabock's death, and a review detailing lies and document tampering to cover up, is more compelling evidence of the need.