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Brain Center Stymied Abuse Investigators, Lawsuit Claims

Florida’s federally-designated disability rights advocacy group sued one of the country’s largest brain-injury centers, alleging the facility is blocking its efforts to probe complaints of recent patient mistreatment.

The Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation prevented an investigator from interviewing witnesses and from visiting locations on campus where alleged abuse occurred, according to the lawsuit, filed by Disability Rights Florida in U.S. District Court in Tampa. One investigator was asked to leave the Wauchula, Florida facility, the advocacy group said in the lawsuit.

One complaint involved a patient who was allegedly improperly restrained. The second concerns an allegation of two staffers physically abusing a patient. Both incidents occurred “within the past week or so,” said Sylvia Smith, a spokeswoman for Disability Rights Florida.

The institute has always allowed the disability group “immediate and unlimited access to investigate abuse” charges, said Jay Adams, an attorney for the brain-injury facility, in an e-mailed statement. He said the center cooperates fully with the group and with state regulators “and it is unfortunate that they have filed this unsubstantiated complaint rather than focusing their resources and efforts on the health and well-being of Florida’s disabled.”

Bloomberg News has reported on dozens of cases of alleged abuse and neglect since 1998 at the for-profit, 196-bed facility, known as FINR. Patients’ families or state agencies have accused the center’s staffers of abuse or care lapses in at least five residents’ deaths over that time frame, two of them in the last two years.

Abuse Allegations

Florida’s Department of Children and Families has received 514 allegations of abuse or neglect at FINR since 2005, including 37 that were “verified” by its investigations, according to records released by the agency. In August, state officials went to court to force FINR to turn over incident reports from the past year, which the facility eventually did.

Disability Rights Florida is a government-funded protection and advocacy agency for individuals with disabilities. Similar agencies exist in each state. Federal law gives the protection agencies the power to access records at facilities treating the disabled, to conduct unaccompanied visits at public and private institutions and to file lawsuits on behalf of patients who are being abused or neglected.

Seeking Access

The rights agency is asking a judge to grant it immediate, unaccompanied access to FINR’s facilities, including its 900-acre main campus in Wauchula. The complaint also seeks to require FINR to provide the agency with information on patients’ guardians and to allow unlimited, unobserved telephone and written communication between patients and Disability Rights Florida.

Other states’ protection agencies have also conducted investigations at FINR, and complained about limited cooperation from the center. A 2008 probe by the disabilities advocate for the District of Columbia found that FINR violated patients’ rights and D.C. policies by improperly secluding them in their rooms or using drugs as a form of restraint.

The company denied those allegations in a letter to the D.C. attorney general. It said patients weren’t restricted to their rooms, only to their cabins. Over the last four years, D.C. officials have recalled 21 patients from the facility.

In its report, the D.C. disabilities advocate alleged FINR unlawfully refused to release records for most of the District residents who stayed there, or to provide contact information for certain patients’ guardians.

‘Troubling Questions’

Earlier this year, the executive director of the Connecticut protection and advocacy agency led an investigation into the death of a FINR patient from that state that raised “a number of troubling questions” about her treatment there, according to a state report of the investigation.

FINR refused requests from the Connecticut agency for documents related to the care of the patient who died, saying it was prevented from releasing them by Florida law, according to the report.

The brain-injury center is also fighting a state order to discharge 50 patients that regulators say the facility is not licensed to care for. After appealing that order in August and saying the state was overstepping its authority, the center last month withdrew the appeal. The move was procedural, and the center expects to re-file a challenge to the state action later this month, Lyndsey Cruley, a spokeswoman for FINR, said at the time.

The Florida Agency for Health Care Administration has threatened to start fining FINR if it fails to provide a plan for relocating those 50 patients.

“At this time, all I can say is that sanctions are under review,” said Michelle Dahnke, an AHCA spokeswoman.

The case is Disability Rights Florida Inc. v. Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation Inc., 8:12CV02178-JSM-MAP, U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida (Tampa).

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