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Investigation Shows Hundreds of Patients Dying at California Rehab Centers

Fellowship Story Showcase

Investigation Shows Hundreds of Patients Dying at California Rehab Centers

Picture of Susie Steimle

This story was produced as part of a larger project led by Susie Steimle, a participant in the California Fellowship.

Other stories in this series include:

Deaths At California Rehab Centers Prompt Push For Reform

CBS SF BayArea
Tuesday, June 25, 2019

(KPIX 5) — The average 30-day stay at a California rehab costs families $40,000. It’s expensive and often highly risky. We’ve learned hundreds of patients are dying in detox.

Steven Varney is a former U.S. Air Force pilot who fought in Vietnam. He says he became an alcoholic after the war. “After I got out of the military a few years after I was back at work, that’s when it really started to become a problem,” said Varney.

He’s been trying to quiet his nightmares with whiskey for decades, and has repeatedly turned to Mountain Vista Farm for rehab more times than his son Collin can remember. “I’ve lost count,” he said.

Collin Varney worries the rehab might be taking advantage of his father’s mental state. Now into his 70’s after decades of drinking, his father has dementia. He shows up at Mountain Vista without even telling his family members. Each visit costs as much as $35,000 – slowly but surely draining his bank account.

Even worse, Collin Varney says his father was admitted the last time without his blood pressure medication, something the family didn’t find out about for weeks. “His counselor, who called me about his medications, he didn’t understand the medications he needed to be taking,” said Collin Varney.

The Russells noticed the same thing when they paid $40,000 to check their 19-year-old son, Teddy Russell, into Mountain Vista last summer. “During intake, they had trouble with the blood pressure cuff and she said, ‘No, I have no medical training at all,’” said Anne Russell, talking about the counselor at the rehab.

Mountain Vista Farm is a state licensed residential detox facility, which in California is not required to have a doctor on site. Anne Russell believes the lack of medical support drastically changed the course of her family’s life. “We trusted them to help him and our son trusted us and it was just a nightmare,” she said.

The state investigative report shows Teddy arrived at Mountain Vista Farm at 3:15 p.m. He told the counselors he had taken Xanax and Oxycodone earlier that day, but they didn’t run a required tox screen.

Instead, at 4:45 p.m. they allowed Teddy to go to his room. Detox centers must check on patients every 30 minutes for the critical first 72 hours but that didn’t happen either. At 10:15 p.m., he was found unresponsive. Seven hours after being dropped off at Mountain Vista Farm, Teddy Russell was dead.

The state has the power to suspend a rehab facility’s license after a Class A deficiency. Teddy’s death resulted in two of those. But the state didn’t shut this place down. In fact, we’ve learned it rarely shuts any rehab down. Instead the penalty in Teddy’s case was a $700 fine.

Public records show Teddy’s story is not unique. 190 people have died at other rehab facilities in California since 2010. We found dozens of deficiencies, from falsifying records, failing to report deaths, and employing unqualified staff to not monitoring patient vitals, like what happened to Teddy.

The Russells are now joining a growing list of families filing lawsuits against rehab clinics where their children have died. Gary Gwilliam is their lawyer. “They gave their son to this facility and said, ‘Here he is, take care of him, he’s sick,’ and they trusted him with their son’s life and they utterly failed them,” said Gwilliam.

The Russells want transparency and accountability, so that families have a fighting chance at finding a facility they can trust. “Who is going to care more about this person than you are? You thought and hoped that’s why you were paying these experts to do it,” said Anne Russell.

“There’s no accountability, no responsibility, it’s a joke,” said Collin Varney.

Mountain Vista Farm did not return our request for comment.

One of the most difficult decisions families have to make is finding a rehab they can trust. Most family members have no idea when something goes wrong at a rehab. We wanted to help with that. So we’ve created a map that shows you where every death happened that warranted a state investigation.

State Investigations of Deaths at Rehabilitation Centers
Source: California Department of Health Care Services

[This story was originally published by CBS SF BayArea.]