The company that provides medical and mental health care at troubled Bridgewater State Hospital is facing a civil rights lawsuit from three former patients who say the firm’s doctors and nurses violated their rights by subjecting them to prolonged periods of seclusion, sometimes while strapped to a bed.
The suit, filed Thursday in Suffolk Superior Court, is the fourth alleging abuse of mental health patients at the state prison following the 2009 death of a patient at the hands of prison guards. But it is the first to target the Massachusetts Partnership for Correctional Healthcare and an affiliated firm by arguing that the companies intentionally understaffed the hospital, leaving patients vulnerable to abuse.
According to the suit, the partnership’s low bid for a state contract to provide medical and mental health care at Bridgewater and the other prisons guaranteed it would not be able to care for patients without resorting to illegal use of seclusion and restraints to control them.
“This case illustrates the catastrophic consequences that can occur for the most vulnerable people in our society when for-profit health care providers contract for their care,” said Roderick MacLeish Jr., the attorney representing the former Bridgewater patients in the suit. “To treat the most severely mentally ill men in the state, MPCH proposed a staffing level that was approximately one third the level of Department of Mental Health facilities, paying psychiatrists at a salary approximately half the market rate.”
A company executive said he could not comment on suit details but gave a statement expressing its commitment to quality care. “We are dedicated to working closely with the Massachusetts Department of Correction, the Executive Office of Public Safety, and the Department of Mental Health at Bridgewater and throughout the prisons to meet the demands of this unique population,” said Steven H. Wheeler, MPCH chief executive officer and MHM Services president.
The civil rights lawsuit was filed on behalf of Peter Minich, Felipe Zomosa, and an unnamed third former Bridgewater patient, each of them plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit filed last year over Bridgewater’s use of seclusion and restraints. That suit was settled in December after officials agreed to a variety of measures designed to sharply limit the use of those tactics at Bridgewater.
The civil rights suit follows a story in the Globe revealing that three Bridgewater patients have died due to the questionable use of restraints since 2009 while MHM clinicians were providing medical and mental health care at the facility.
MPCH has received poor performance reviews since it won its $500 million contract in July 2013. For example, five consecutive audits by the Department of Correction found persistent problems in the way MPCH staffers care for patients in seclusion and restraints.
In addition to the two companies, defendants in the suit include Luis S. Spencer, former commissioner of the Department of Correction; Robert Murphy, former Bridgewater superintendent; over half a dozen MPCH doctors and nurses; and unnamed clinicians whose signatures are illegible on numerous orders approving the use of seclusion and restraints.
Last March, former Governor Deval L. Patrick formally reprimanded Spencer and Murphy for the roles they played in covering up circumstances surrounding the 2009 death of Joshua K. Messier, a Bridgewater mental health patient who died as guards strapped his wrists and ankles to a bed and clinicians delayed emergency medical care. The state and MHM Services paid Messier’s family $3 million to settle a civil lawsuit. Spencer has since been fired and Murphy has retired.
In the new lawsuit, Spencer is accused of failing to personally review the seclusion and restraint orders written by MHM and MPCH clinicians for mental health patients at Bridgewater, as state law requires.
Spencer could not be reached for comment but he told the Globe last year that he delegated that review to staffers with more expertise in proper use of seclusion and restraints.
However, the lawsuit says Spencer knew that patients were spending long periods of time in seclusion and restraints and refrained from personally reviewing the orders “so that he could later claim that he was not responsible for the illegal seclusion and restraint at Bridgewater.” State law says seclusion and restraints may be used only in an emergency, such as extreme violence or the threat of extreme violence.
In the lawsuit, Murphy is accused of failing to re-authorize seclusion and restraint orders after eight hours, as state law requires. “Murphy was fully aware that the plaintiffs and other patients at Bridgewater were being secluded for periods of more than eight hours when there was no longer an emergency, yet he allowed such seclusions and restraint to continue,” the lawsuit says.
The Globe was unable to reach Murphy for comment.