LAW WOULD BAR DUMPING PATIENTS ON THE STREET
State and local officials will unveil proposed legislation today making it a crime to dump hospital patients on the streets, part of a new push by authorities who are investigating 55 cases of alleged dumping on L.A.'s skid row alone.
The move comes after a string of such incidents -- including one involving a paraplegic man wearing a colostomy bag who was left in a skid row gutter -- generated widespread outrage.
Authorities have struggled to build cases against those accused of doing the dumping, in part because there is no state law that expressly prohibits leaving patients on the streets.
The Los Angeles city attorney has filed criminal charges against just one hospital, Kaiser Permanente, saying the dumping of a homeless woman on skid row in 2006 amounted to false imprisonment. That legal strategy, however, has never been tested in court, and some legal experts question whether it will hold up.
The new legislation comes as authorities are stepping up their crackdown on dumping.
The Los Angeles Police Department put hospitals on notice Wednesday that officers would immediately arrest anyone they saw dumping patients on skid row, using the false imprisonment charge. The LAPD also plans to assign extra officers to look for evidence of dumping.
“Enough is enough,” Capt. Andy Smith said. “We are going to book these guys.”
At the same time, federal authorities said they are investigating two L.A. hospitals suspected of dumping the homeless.
Michelle Griffin, branch manager for the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said investigators were trying to determine whether the hospitals -- which she would not name -- violated the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act and Medicare Conditions of Participation. Those statutes deal with the way hospitals treat and discharge patients.
If a hospital is found to be in violation of the act, it could be subject to discipline and civil penalties, possibly putting its accreditation and Medicare funding at risk, Griffin said.
“We take these allegations very seriously,” she added.
The push to criminalize dumping comes amid a two-year campaign by city officials to halt the practice by hospitals, as well as by some outside law enforcement agencies that have reportedly driven criminals to skid row after they were released from custody.
Los Angeles is in the midst of an aggressive effort to clean up skid row, which has the largest concentration of homeless people in the Western United States. The campaign -- which involved adding 50 police officers who over the last few months have made hundreds of arrests -- comes as downtown is seeing a boom in luxury condo and apartment development.
The new legislation, by state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), would make it a misdemeanor for any hospital facility or worker to transport patients anywhere other than their residences without their informed consent.
Individual offenders could be punished by up to two years in County Jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000. Healthcare facilities that violate the law could be slapped with penalties of up to $10,000.
Jennifer Bayer, public affairs director for the Hospital Assn. of Southern California, said Wednesday that her group was concerned about any legislation that would criminalize or impose legislation on hospitals beyond their role of providing “acute medical care.”
“The problem goes back to the lack of social services for homeless and indigent patients who end up in hospitals,” she said. “We are already spending $2 billion in uncompensated care providing medical treatment for indigent patients. Imposing fines or arresting people is not productive.”
Cedillo says his bill doesn’t ask hospitals to address housing issues but is designed to stop them from contributing to the homelessness problem by failing to plan for discharging patients.
City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo said the proposed legislation would make prosecuting hospitals much easier for his office. He noted that the office built a case against Kaiser using the false imprisonment charge -- and a second count of adult-care endangerment -- but acknowledged it was a “creative” use of the law.
“We believe we are providing clarity in the law, and clarity in law is power to a prosecutor,” he said. “Dumping a paraplegic man in the gutter of skid row without any ambulatory device in no more than a hospital gown demonstrates no shade of gray.”
He was referring to the case of a 54-year-old man in a soiled hospital gown, his colostomy bag still attached, who was found two weeks ago crawling in the gutter after being dropped off in front of a park on skid row, far from services for the homeless.
Police say that as onlookers demanded help for the man, the driver of the van for Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center applied makeup and perfume, before speeding off. The hospital said it is investigating the circumstances of the case but acknowledged that it didn’t follow its own release policies.
Laurie Levenson, a Loyola Law School professor, said Cedillo’s proposed legislation provides “a better fit for prosecution” than existing false imprisonment laws, because it’s more specific.
But she also warned that such a law would be open to legal challenges -- and might be hard to enforce. “It is not a magic bullet, but it gives some appearance of action,” she said.
Bayer of the hospital association said officials can’t solve a vexing problem such as homeless patients with a law.
“There are no easy answers,” she said. “It’s such a complex issue that everyone must work to solve.”
The Kaiser case involved a 63-year-old patient who was discharged early last year from Kaiser Permanente’s Bellflower medical center. A short time later, video at a downtown mission captured her stepping out of a taxi in gown and socks and then wandering aimlessly down San Pedro Street.
Kaiser has denied any wrongdoing, saying the woman was discharged by mistake. The hospital has also said it has since revamped release policies.
Meanwhile, the LAPD was investigating a report of another possible dumping case, involving a 53-year-old man who was found about 6 a.m. Wednesday wandering in circles at 4th and San Pedro streets. He was dressed in bedroom slippers, a tattered sweater and a hospital gown.
Police concluded, however, that the man wasn’t dumped but rather walked out of a hospital on his own and trekked nearly four miles to downtown.