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Daily Report: Health and Welfare

To mark 1906 quake, resources to teach kids about disaster safety

April 18, 2013, 12:05 AM | Kelly Chen, California Watch

To commemorate the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire and follow up on our investigation into the seismic safety of California’s schools, the Center for Investigate Reporting is teaming up with the American Red Cross Bay Area Chapter today for a “prep rally” on seismic preparedness. The event at the California Academy of Sciences will provide resources and tips for families on what to do in an earthquake. It will also feature appearances by sports stars Jerry Rice and Kristi Yamaguchi. Activities begin at 9:30 a.m. Click here for more details.

Photos of major earthquakes in California since 1906

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Lawmakers mull next steps for developmental centers

April 11, 2013, 7:09 PM | Amy Julia Harris, California Watch

Max Whittaker/For California Watch People with developmental disabilities and their supporters call on lawmakers to shut down the state's developmental centers. 

SACRAMENTO – State lawmakers weighed today whether to appoint an inspector general to oversee state centers for the developmentally disabled and close a center in Sonoma where patients suffered the worst instances of abuse, neglect and sexual assaults.

During a daylong hearing, members of a Senate budget subcommittee on health and human services heard testimony from state officials and advocates for the developmentally disabled but did not indicate what action they might take.

The proposal to create an inspector general met with opposition from the Department of Developmental Services, which objected to its cost. The idea also found little support among advocates and family members of the disabled, who say the state-run centers should be shut down...

Independent oversight proposed for developmental centers

April 10, 2013, 5:19 PM | Amy Julia Harris, California Watch

Monica Lam/California Watch The Office of Protective Services is an in-house police force at California's developmental centers.

The state’s influential legislative analyst is recommending that the California Legislature create an independent Office of Inspector General to monitor state developmental centers where police failed to properly investigate patient deaths, abuse, sexual assault and neglect.

The proposal from the Legislative Analyst’s Office comes in response to an 18-month investigation by California Watch into rapes and other instances of patient abuse at the Sonoma Developmental Center and four other board-and-care centers around the state.

“Given the vulnerable nature of the population served by the Developmental Centers, and the ongoing nature of the health and safety problems that have plagued the Developmental Centers for more than a decade, we believe such additional oversight in the form of an Office of Inspector General is warranted,” the analyst’s office said in its budget analysis for the coming fiscal year.


A Senate budget subcommittee on health and human services is scheduled to discuss the proposal Thursday...

Doctors claim Prime hospital kept them from patients

March 29, 2013, 12:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch

Monica Lam/California Watch

A dozen Southern California doctors are accusing the leadership of a Prime Healthcare Services hospital of refusing to notify them about their patients because they won’t engage in profit-driven practices, according to a request for a restraining order filed this week.

The San Bernardino County physician group suing Chino Valley Medical Center and its director say it has been asked to needlessly admit patients from the emergency room into hospital beds, according to the lawsuit filed Wednesday in San Bernardino County Superior Court. The group’s doctors also have been urged to document patient conditions as more complex or severe than they are, the filing says.

The doctors suing the hospital maintain that both practices are meant to drive up hospital bills. The result of their refusal to go along, they say, is that they’re not receiving what they characterize as legally mandated notifications when their patients land in the hospital.


The physicians have asked the judge to lift the alleged freeze in communication, saying it puts fragile patients in danger. A hearing is set for April 19 on the temporary restraining...

Cambodian youth confront ‘historical forgetting’

March 28, 2013, 6:05 AM | Patricia Leigh Brown, California Watch

Richard Hartog/California Watch Community organizer Ashley Uyeda, second from left, listens during a group youth session at the Khmer Girls in Action offices in Long Beach with Christine Sam, 16, in yellow, Malin Ouk, 17, and Kunthea Sin, 18.

LONG BEACH – Youthful rebellion can come in many guises, from being anti-Google to defending animal rights. But for an all-female group of Cambodian American teens in Long Beach, home to the country’s largest Cambodian community, the target of their adolescent disaffection is their parents’ generational hopelessness.

“We felt the word ‘action’ was important,” said Sophya Chum, an organizer for Khmer Girls in Action, an activist group whose members, young Cambodian American women, surveyed some 500 of their 1.5-generation (those who immigrated to the U.S. as children) and second-generation peers to better understand the issues affecting their lives. Their findings are the basis of Show Youth the Love, a health and wellness forum held last month...

Unincorporated neighborhood finally getting sewer service

March 27, 2013, 1:26 PM | Bernice Yeung, California Watch

Max Whittaker/Prime Arleen Hernandez frequently has to unclog her backed-up shower because of the aging septic tank at her Parklawn home.

The unincorporated neighborhood of Parklawn, one of hundreds of impoverished California communities that lack basic services, celebrated a breakthrough this month when Stanislaus County broke ground on a new sewer line connecting the district to the city of Modesto.

Parklawn, which has grappled with deficient septic tanks for about 60 years, is an unincorporated island of county territory nearly surrounded by Modesto. Around the state, such densely populated unincorporated neighborhoods on county land have long suffered from government neglect and lack some combination of sewer systems, clean drinking water, sidewalks, streetlights and storm drains...

Join our discussion on Pomona's developmental center

March 25, 2013, 6:20 PM | Marie McIntosh, California Watch

California Watch invites you to share your insights and experiences regarding the Lanterman Developmental Center in Pomona. On April 3, reporter Ryan Gabrielson, who has covered the state’s developmental centers in his series Broken Shield, will participate in a discussion on topics ranging from the closure of the Lanterman Developmental Center to soaring overtime pay for the centers' police force.

What does this development mean for the city of Pomona, the developmental center and its patients, and the people who live in surrounding communities?

We invite stakeholders to discuss this and other questions. The conversation will be moderated by Joaquin Alvarado, chief strategy officer for the Center for Investigative Reporting, the parent organization of California Watch. Gabrielson will discuss his investigative findings and answer questions.


When: April 3, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Where: UC Riverside Extension campus, Conference Room A

1200 University Ave., Riverside

$5 parking on-site

RSVP: This event is free to the public, but registration is required: http://lantermandc.eventbrite.com.

For East African women, moving from Cheetos to mushmush

March 25, 2013, 12:00 AM | Patricia Leigh Brown, California Watch

Carlos A. Moreno/California Watch The gatherings are meant to help daughters of East African women to understand their heritage and to encourage mothers to adapt healthy versions of American favorites like quiche and pizza.

SAN DIEGO – For many daughters, the kitchen contains their mother’s secrets. In the tumult of pots and pans, the pinches of sugar and salt, reside recipes perfected over time without cookbooks, experience and intuition the only guides.

For East African daughters in City Heights, a neighborhood that is a major West Coast portal for refugees, the opportunity to cook twice a month as a group with their mothers is a chance to steep themselves in Somali, Ethiopian and Eritrean culinary traditions, passed down orally through generations.

“We have a common goal: to learn from each other,” said Ayan Sheikh, a recent graduate of CSU Bakersfield and a nurse, who missed the cooking group so much at school that she asked her aunt to post the sessions on YouTube.

The gatherings started two years ago with 10 mothers and daughters; today, there are more than 30 regulars. The group has multiple goals: helping daughters growing up in the U.S. to understand their heritage while encouraging mothers to adapt...

New director to take over troubled Sonoma disability center

March 7, 2013, 5:38 PM | Amy Julia Harris, California Watch

Mike Kepka/San Francisco Chronicle Giant palm trees stand at the main gate of the Sonoma Developmental Center, which houses about 500 patients. 

A former employee of the Sonoma Developmental Center has been tapped to head California’s largest full-time care facility for the severely disabled, at a time when the institution is struggling to reinvent itself in the wake of patient abuse scandals.

The Department of Developmental Services announced Wednesday that Karen Faria, who worked at the Sonoma Developmental Center from 1985 to 2005, will become the embattled facility's latest executive director starting April 1.

The appointment comes in the wake of a California Watch series that uncovered serious allegations of patient abuse at the Sonoma Developmental Center. The reported abuses included cases of rape and molestation as well as allegations that a state worker used a Taser to inflict burns on a dozen patients.

The California Watch investigation exposed these cases and focused on failures of an internal police force to get to the bottom of the abuses. One-third of the 36 alleged rapes occurred at the Sonoma board-and-care center – one of five such facilities in California that house about 1...

Prime hospital chain acknowledges it faces 2 federal investigations

February 6, 2013, 12:05 AM | Lance Williams, California Watch

Ana Venegas/The Orange County Register Dr. Prem Reddy, founder of Prime Healthcare Services, recently gave a presentation on Medicare billing practices to doctors at a Texas hospital that Prime’s nonprofit foundation acquired.

The Prime Healthcare Services hospital chain has acknowledged it is the target of two federal investigations: a U.S. Justice Department probe of its Medicare billings and an inquiry into alleged violations of patient confidentiality laws.

The San Bernardino County-based company disclosed the investigations in a Jan. 2 filing with the state health department in Rhode Island, where Prime hopes to buy its 22nd hospital.

Prime’s filing marked the first time the company has said it is facing a federal investigation. Until now, the company has steadfastly denied being the subject of any such probes.

Prime claims its Medicare billings are legal and proper, and the company shows little sign of backing away from the kind of aggressive billing practices that have made it the focus of official scrutiny...

Excerpts from Reddy’s presentation to Texas doctors

February 6, 2013, 12:05 AM | Lance Williams, California Watch

On Jan. 2, Knapp Medical Center in Weslaco, Texas, was bought by a nonprofit foundation associated with Prime Healthcare Services, a fast-growing California-based hospital chain that is under federal investigation for aggressive Medicare billings.

Soon after, Dr. Prem Reddy, Prime’s founder and CEO and the foundation’s president, instructed Knapp’s doctors on how to boost their Medicare payouts using the same controversial strategies that have made his company the target of federal scrutiny.

According to an hour-long recording of his presentation, Reddy encouraged the doctors to augment their patients’ charts with multiple secondary diagnoses for what he called “comorbid conditions.” Medicare pays hefty treatment bonuses worth thousands of dollars per case for treating patients who suffer from specified “major complications and comorbidities,” federal records show.

Reddy also urged the doctors to find reasons to admit Medicare patients to the hospital rather than treating them as outpatients, saying the Medicare payouts would triple.

More than two years ago, two California congressmen asked Medicare to investigate Prime, saying they suspected the chain was committing a form of Medicare fraud called “upcoding,” or exaggerated diagnoses. Millions may have been lost, the lawmakers wrote in a letter. On Jan. 2, Prime disclosed to health care regulators in Rhode Island that it is facing a U.S. Justice Department probe over its billing practices...

Sonoma disability center staff weighs in on abuse claims

January 31, 2013, 11:09 AM | Amy Julia Harris, California Watch

Anna Vignet/California Watch Patrick Leslie, a chaplain at the Sonoma Developmental Center, speaks about the facility's need for good publicity at a public forum. 

SONOMA – California’s largest full-time care center for the severely disabled needs more staff and accountability to correct major internal breakdowns that led to dozens of cases of alleged patient abuse, staff members said Wednesday at a public forum.

The Sonoma Developmental Center, one of five state-run board-and-care facilities, has been in crisis mode since last month, when the center lost its primary license to operate for repeatedly exposing patients to physical and sexual abuse and shoddy medical care.

Katrise Fraund, a longtime senior psychiatric technician at the Sonoma Developmental Center, said the scandal has clouded the typically high quality of care offered at the institution, whose patients have cerebral palsy, severe autism and other intellectual disabilities...

State disability center forfeits funding over abuse

January 18, 2013, 5:17 PM | Ryan Gabrielson, California Watch

Mike Kepka/San Francisco Chronicle A placard marks the Corcoran Unit at the Sonoma Developmental Center, which has been the site of 11 alleged sex assaults since 2009.

California's largest board-and-care center for the developmentally disabled will surrender more than $1 million a month in federal funding for failures to protect patients from abuse and provide quality medical care, state officials announced today.

In December, state regulators cited the Sonoma Developmental Center for numerous violations that put patients with cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities at risk of serious injury and death. Regulators have threatened to close a major portion of the century-old institution, now home to more than 500 patients.

The state Department of Developmental Services, which operates the institution, this week agreed not to seek reimbursement from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid for services provided at its most troubled residences. The state singled out four out of 10 residential units at the Sonoma facility...

Former patient claims confidentiality breach in Prime Healthcare lawsuit

January 18, 2013, 12:05 AM | Lance Williams, California Watch

Monica Lam/California Watch Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding 

A former Redding hospital patient has sued the Prime Healthcare Services chain for disclosing her medical files to hundreds of people without permission.

In a lawsuit filed last month in Shasta County Superior Court, Darlene Courtois, a retired teacher's aide, accused Prime of repeatedly violating patient confidentiality laws in a frantic effort to discredit a 2011 California Watch news report about the hospital chain’s billing practices.

As part of that effort, the CEO at Prime’s Shasta Regional Medical Center sent emails to all of the hospital’s 785 employees disclosing details of the then-64-year-old diabetes patient’s confidential files, the lawsuit says.

The CEO also showed her medical files to the editor of the local newspaper in a successful effort to dissuade him from publishing the story, the suit says.

California Watch had interviewed Courtois for a story about a reported outbreak of a rare form of malnutrition called kwashiorkor at the Redding hospital...

Writer looks for healthiest, happiest approach to childbirth

January 15, 2013, 6:05 AM | Marie McIntosh, California Watch

Kelly Sue DeConnick/ Flickr

Is natural always better? Bay Area-based writer Nathanael Johnson seeks to answer that very complicated question in his new book, “All Natural.” In this reported memoir, Johnson, a self-described skeptic, seeks to discover if a more natural approach to life makes one happier and healthier...

An excerpt from Nathanael Johnson's book, 'All Natural'

January 15, 2013, 6:05 AM | Nathanael Johnson, California Watch

There is, in fact, a vigorous debate over medical intervention in birth, and not just between the fringe and the medical establishment, but within the establishment. No one is suggesting that we revert to the practices of the 1900s, but many clinicians and scientists are warning that the medicalization of birth has gone too far. When I took a closer look at the data, I found one seemingly impossible statistic after another. Progress in reducing the infant mortality rate had advanced through the 20th century, but had stalled in the 21st century. This plateau, "has generated concern among researchers and policy makers," according to a 2008 brief from the National Center for Health Statistics. "The U.S. infant mortality rate is higher than those in most other developed countries," wrote the statisticians, "and the gap between the U.S. infant mortality rate and the rates for the countries with the lowest infant mortality [Japan, Sweden, Spain, and others] appears to be widening." In addition, the numbers of preterm and low birth-weight infants had actually risen (a part of this increase was due to a higher number of twins and multiples, perhaps from the rise of fertility treatments, but the increase remained when researchers only looked at singleton births)...

Doctor pleads guilty to taking kickbacks in Medicare scam

December 21, 2012, 12:05 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch

Lisa S./Shutterstock

A Southern California doctor has been sentenced to a year in prison after pleading guilty to accepting $30,000 in kickbacks to fabricate Medicare claims for home health care services for seniors.

The sentencing of Dr. Whan Sil “Victoria” Kim of Hancock Park last week is the latest in a series of prosecutions targeting the Los Angeles Greatcare Home Health clinic, which the prosecutor in the case says was “almost a wholly fraudulent endeavor.”

Greatcare's owner, Hee Jung “Angela” Mun, a nurse, pleaded guilty to orchestrating the scam. Her plea says the clinic bribed Medicare patients to sign up for home care they didn't need and paid doctors to document $5 million worth of care, much of which was not provided...

Prime hospital abruptly stops billing Medicare for rare ailment

December 20, 2012, 12:05 AM | Lance Williams and Stephen K. Doig, California Watch

Monica Lam/California Watch

After billing Medicare for treating more than 1,100 cases of a rare affliction, a Prime Healthcare Services hospital in Redding abruptly stopped last year, state health records show. The change occurred soon after California Watch published a story about aggressive billing practices at the hospital.

About six months after it took control of the Shasta Regional Medical Center in Redding in late 2008, Prime began billing Medicare for treating senior citizens it diagnosed with kwashiorkor, a dangerous nutritional disorder usually seen among children during famines in developing countries. At its height, the hospital's billing for the malady surged to nearly 70 times the state average.

The previous high rates of kwashiorkor diagnoses made the hospital eligible for about $6,000 in Medicare bonus payments for each of the more than 1,100 cases of kwashiorkor it reported over a two-year period, according to federal records. That’s $6.9 million in all.

Prime said in a statement that its Medicare billings are legal and accurate. It declined to respond to follow-up questions...

Report estimates health plan overbilled Medicare $424M

December 17, 2012, 6:27 AM | Christina Jewett, California Watch

Boris Bartels/Flickr

Medicare may have overpaid an estimated $424 million to PacifiCare of California’s Medicare Advantage plan based on risk assessments that in many cases made patients seem sicker than they were, according to a federal oversight agency.

Medicare Advantage plans send patient diagnosis codes to Medicare, which boosts plan rates if clients are affected by serious medical conditions.

A new report by the U.S. Health and Human Services inspector general says PacifiCare was paid extra for treating patients with cancer or a dangerous bloodstream infection even though medical records didn’t describe those ailments.

UnitedHealth Group, which now owns PacifiCare of California, disputed the inspector general’s findings, saying the review of 100 cases could not be generalized to hundreds of other claims.

“The audit does not follow Medicare’s own guidelines, standards or accepted methodology for validating risk-adjustment payments,” a statement by UnitedHealthcare Medicare & Retirement says. “In fact, it differs significantly from (Medicare’s) adopted methodology. The OIG appears to have relied instead on...

Some counties requiring health workers to get flu vaccine

December 12, 2012, 4:01 PM | Katharine Mieszkowski, The Bay Citizen

UPDATE, Dec. 12, 2012: This story updates to include the position of the California Association of Health Facilities.

USACE Europe District/Flickr

In an effort to prevent health care workers from spreading the flu to patients this winter, county health officials are mandating that medical staff around the Bay Area receive vaccinations or wear a surgical mask on the job.

Health officials say flu vaccination rates among health care workers are dangerously low – 60 percent [PDF] of those working in California hospitals received the vaccine in the 2010-11 flu season, according to the most recent data available from the California Department of Public Health.

Officials hope the requirements will help prevent the spread of the virus to patients most vulnerable to its life-threatening complications, particularly the elderly, whose weakening immune systems may render the flu vaccine less effective.

However, county health officers say they have few resources to enforce the new orders, leaving it up to the discretion of hospitals, nursing homes, dialysis centers and other health care facilities to make sure their staffs are vaccinated...

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