HOSPITAL IN JEOPARDY: State investigates new claims about Sonora Behavioral Health in Tucson

Whistleblower comes forward with documents, photos

Hospital in Jeopardy: Sonoran Behavioral Health

TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - A new whistleblower came forward with stories about problems at Sonora Behavioral Health Hospital in Tucson with what she said are internal documents and pictures.

KOLD News 13 has reported a lot about the issues at Sonora, but never like this. The whistleblower, who asked to remain anonymous, spoke exclusively with KOLD to expose what she said happened.

“The nurse turned her back, the patient reached in got a syringe and then proceeded to tattoo at least three people,” the whistleblower said. “They used markers; they tried to water down colored pencils. One was a heart and some initials, one of them was a personal design.”

“It was one needle for all of the kids,” she said.

When asked if anything was transmitted between the teens, the whistleblower couldn’t say.

“That’s something only time will tell,” she said.

The Arizona Department of Health Services did document a tattooing incident. In one citation, it said the patient was “coaching two other patients on how to give her a tattoo.”

Supporting documents

This whistleblower has a lot of stories to tell and she’s also giving us what she says are internal documents supporting her claims.

One issue she highlighted involves an emergency cart that is difficult to access.

“There’s so much stuff in front of it,” she said.

A whistleblower said a cart used during emergencies at Sonora Behavioral Health Hospital was difficult to access.
A whistleblower said a cart used during emergencies at Sonora Behavioral Health Hospital was difficult to access. (Source: KOLD News 13)

Fast access is crucial as these carts contain life-saving equipment — or at least they’re supposed to. One cart was written up as not restocked or secured.

One of the worst things, this whistleblower notes, is staffing.

She said a lot of the problems at Sonora stem from not being properly staffed. That’s something the hospital has been cited for. In one case, it was for not having a nurse on all units at all times.

Another whistleblower provided a picture of a note letting workers know there would be no supervisor present one evening. They also forwarded us a text they said they received thanking them for helping during stressful staffing moments. Another internal document acknowledges they were short-staffed, but the plan was just to provide the best care with the staff available.

The hospital also got dinged for not having properly-trained staff.

In this citation, it details a worker assigned as a supervisor, but they didn’t know the rules about emergency exits and three teens escaped. Those teens were found hours later.

The hospital was fined $2,000 for the incident.

'They think they’re untouchable’

This whistleblower tells us the state is frequently looking into claims, but problems persist.

“I think they think they’re untouchable in the sense that the state will never shut them down,” the whistleblower said.

A representative for the Arizona Department of Health Services said the needs of the community need to be considered before closing a hospital, but no hospital is too important to fail.

“We can close hospitals," said Colby Bower, assistant director of the Arizona Department of Health Services. "But we also have to balance that with the needs of the community and so without getting into specifics about any one particular institution, we look to try to work with that provider to correct those deficiencies.”

As for Sonora, we went there ready to interview. The receptionist said no one was available and then asked us to leave.

A representative of the hospital eventually did contact us and offered this response:

“At Sonora Behavioral Health, providing the highest quality care while protecting the safety of patients is our top priority. We have built an experienced team of professionals and as individuals, we are committed to providing high quality, clinical care for each person we serve.”

The whistleblower hopes by coming forward, things will get better.

“When they’re not being held accountable by the people that are supposed to hold them accountable what can you do? Where do you go? It feels helpless," she said.

Some of these claims are new to the Arizona Department of Health Services so we submitted them along with some other potential claims. They are being investigated now.

Count on KOLD News 13 to stay on top of what’s going on at the hospital as we continue to push for answers.

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