HOSPITAL IN JEOPARDY: New trouble, citations for Sonora Behavioral Health Hospital in Tucson

Employees blow whistle on what they call dangerous problems at the troubled facility
Updated: Nov. 4, 2019 at 3:49 PM MST
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EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in July 2019.

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Sonora Behavioral Health Hospital in Tucson is facing more trouble than ever before. Citations keep piling on; the latest involve a patient who attempted suicide.

Now, for the first time, we are hearing from workers who are blowing the whistle on what they call dangerous problems as they push for a change.

“The hospital has become a joke,” one employee mentioned.

KOLD News 13 started investigating Sonora Behavioral Health Hospital in May 2018. That investigation found that Sonora was the psychiatric hospital with the most citations and most severe citations from the Arizona Department of Health Services for the previous three years.

While the hospital no longer leads Arizona in the number of violations, it still takes that title in Tucson. Sonora also ranks second in the state for 2018.

Now, hospital employees are speaking. It took months of off-camera conversation before finally agreeing to put their jobs on the line and expose what they say is really going on.

“You’ve told me your job could be in jeopardy by talking to me. Why are you taking this risk?” Investigative Reporter Wendi Redman asked.

“I want to get the word out to the community that this hospital is or can be dangerous,” a worker said.

Workers claim conditions are so bad, it’s simply not safe for patients or staff.

“It’s so bad that even the nurses are pretty much afraid to try to do their job.”

“Would you send a loved one to Sonora?” Redman asked.

"No. I will not."

Employees say the hospital is constantly understaffed. Staffing issues are something the hospital has been cited for specifically; failing to ensure there is at least one nurse on every unit.

They also claim some staff are not following policies and procedures which can lead to dangerous situations.

“What is the most dangerous thing that you’ve seen or heard of happening there?” Redman asked.

“I don’t even know where to begin on that one. We actually had an adolescent have a suicide attempt.”

The citations back up this revelation. Some of the newest citations from the Arizona Department of Health Services are in relation to a patient attempted suicide. The citations show the patient was found with a piece of sheet tied around her neck.

“The patient was blue when they found her. And luckily, they were able to revive her,” an employee said.

The discovery came after another patient yelled for help.

Why is this happening? These workers claim the hospital’s focus is not where it should be.

“All they think is profit. Profit, profit, profit,” one said.

“I’ve gotten a lot of emails about how Sonora is just trying to make money,” Redman said. “They’re trying to fill beds. And they’re trying to fill beds that you don’t even have. Is that true? Are they really putting people in seclusion rooms that shouldn’t be there just to get more bodies in?”

“It has happened. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it happen. Sometimes we over-admit people,” an employee said.

The state caught them doing just that, admitting too many patients, as documented in a citation.

"Why don’t you think more people like yourself are speaking out?” Redman asked.

“I believe that they’re scared.”

The whistle-blowers said when they do eventually decide to speak up, their concerns are shut down, much like our attempts to speak with the CEO. Michael Tacke took over for Connie Burnett who was out shortly after our first investigation aired, however, we did receive this response from their public relations person:

“At Sonora Behavioral Health, the safety and wellbeing of our patients is our top priority. We treat acute individuals with the most complex and challenging issues, many of whom are referred to us because of our advanced care. We work collaboratively with the Arizona Department of Health Services and value their oversight for patient care in our state. Sonora Behavioral Health has built an experienced team of professionals, with our executives, senior leadership, physicians and other clinical staff all committed on continuously improving processes and policies to provide high quality, clinical care.”

These whistle-blowers said they did not want to be considered disgruntled employees because most of their complaints are well documented in state citations. They just simply want their concerns permanently fixed before, they fear, more people get hurt.

“Should this hospital be shut down?” Redman asked.

“Yes, I believe this hospital should be shut down temporarily because, once again, we do need, there is a need for mental health within our community,” one worker said.

A year ago, KOLD spoke with the Arizona Department of Health Services about Sonora Behavioral Health Hospital. They said they can’t speak to specific citations. We then asked what the process is to shut down a facility.

“When we come upon a situation that’s really, really not good for the residents, we call those other agencies in and we’ll be there. But ultimately whether or not that facility has a license lies within the department of health,” said Colby Bower, Assistant Director of Public Health Licensing.

All citations mentioned in this piece have since been corrected.

Copyright 2019 KOLD News 13. All rights reserved.