Aurora Las Encinas Hospital faces renewed scrutiny


A high-end psychiatric hospital in Pasadena where four patients died and one was raped in recent years is facing renewed scrutiny after inspectors learned of several recent escapes and near suicides.

Aurora Las Encinas Hospital has been notified that it risks losing federal financial support after the latest incidents, one of which involved a woman known to be suicidal who was able to remove a battery from a TV remote-control device and swallow it. Several days after that, she broke a mirror and swallowed glass.

Another woman with a history of suicide attempts was discovered attempting to hang herself from a faucet with ties from the back of a hospital gown.

Both patients survived.

The facility’s new troubles coincide with the confirmation this week that celebrity Dr. Drew Pinsky, who has led the chemical dependency unit at the hospital for at least 19 years, has severed ties with the program.

Pinsky did not respond to questions about why he left, beyond confirming his departure through his agent. He told The Times in 2008 that he was not involved in patient-care lapses reported at that time.

Hospital officials did not return calls for comment. In a plan of correction prepared for federal officials, the hospital promised to monitor patients more closely.

Purchased in 2003 by Signature Healthcare Services, the facility has recently undergone leadership changes, with the departure of the hospital’s chief executive officer last fall and nursing director in recent weeks.

Las Encinas portrays itself in marketing materials as a “world-renowned” psychiatric hospital providing “the finest care in the finest setting” featuring a swimming pool, tennis court and wooded grounds. It has charged as much as $1,600 a night for private rooms.

Opened in 1904, the hospital in the last two decades has become closely associated with Pinsky, who hosts the radio program “Loveline” and the TV reality show “Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew” and has been a commentator on such programs as CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

In August 2008, Pinsky staunchly defended Las Encinas as “an excellent hospital” but also distanced himself from the facility, saying it was a “bizarre misconception” that people associated him with it. Pinsky was the only physician at the time whose photograph was featured on the Las Encinas website, and affiliation has been mentioned in press releases touting his reality TV program and on the Loveline radio show’s website.

Parents of two patients who died at Las Encinas in 2006 and 2008 said Pinsky’s celebrity attracted their sons to the facility.

“I was elated that he finally pulled his name because it will keep some people from going there, if not most,” said Lawrence Grassini, whose son, Leo, was found dead in his room in 2006.

Both were on detoxification medication that could cause them to stop breathing, but staff did not follow doctors’ orders to closely monitor the patients. In both instances, workers falsified logs to show that the patients had been checked every 15 minutes, according to government inspection reports.

Also in 2008, The Times reported that a patient entered the room of a 14-year-old and raped her while hospital employees slept, a patient fatally overdosed on contraband prescription drugs smuggled in by another patient and a bipolar patient hanged himself using a plastic bag, according to sources and records.

An inspection in September, released to The Times recently, turned up other problems:

* The woman who tried to hang herself from the bathroom faucet was allowed to go to the bathroom without a staff member to watch her. The woman had entered Las Encinas with a history of cutting her arms and throat with a broken light bulb and trying to hang herself with a sock. But an employee told investigators that Las Encinas staff “did not expect the patient to have anything to harm herself with and were not concerned about her going into the bathroom alone.”

Another employee told inspectors that the woman should not have been given a hospital gown with strings. A safety engineer at the hospital later said he believed the faucets had been a safety problem, telling inspectors, “We have spent the last 1 1/2 years searching for safe faucets.”

* The woman who swallowed the battery from the TV remote-control device had, before going to the hospital, swallowed a battery, nail and wire, placed a metal object in her eye and cut herself.

After being treated in an emergency room for her injuries at Las Encinas, she was ordered to be continuously monitored for two days. The order was lifted even though she remained “irritable and anxious,” inspectors said. Five days later, she broke the mirror in her bathroom and swallowed the glass and was again sent to an emergency room.

* A delusional man who was mostly mute was able to escape from a locked unit the day after entering the hospital. Four days later, the man escaped again and injured a hospital employee as he fled.

* A young man who experienced hallucinations entered Las Encinas’ adolescent unit after intentionally running into traffic. Two days after he was admitted, he escaped. He was found hiding in some bamboo 15 minutes later.

The next morning, at 4:30 a.m., hospital staff realized the patient was missing and found his bathroom window left half-open. He was found at his stepfather’s home 11 days later.

Federal officials have found the problems so serious that they are allowing state inspectors to enter the facility at any time to check on its compliance with regulations.

The hospital has also been warned it could lose federal funding from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, although most facilities are able to correct problems before this occurs.

The warning is the second of its kind since late 2008.