Unity Center reopening as investigation wraps up
Legacy Health is gradually reopening the Unity Center for Behavioral Health, a special facility that was set up to be the region's emergency room for the distressed and mentally ill, after a temporary shut-down due to safety concerns.
The Northeast Portland facility had closed its doors to EMS transports and transfers from other hospitals early in the week. An email to staff said it was to deal with a state investigation. Documents obtained by the Portland Tribune showed the investigation related to employee concerns of understaffing and patient safety, causing one to label the center a "hell hole."
Kristin Whitney, the Unity spokeswoman for Legacy, issued a statement late Wednesday saying Unity "is ramping up toward normal operations."
The statement said the center had accepted 10 patients since Tuesday and another was "pending admission." Five more patients were transferred from other hospitals' emergency departments.
Unity Center began operations in January 2017, a joint venture of local hospitals and health systems. Local doctors and advocates for the mentally ill had pushed Portland to emulate a specialized emergency ward in Alameda County, California, for people in need of psychiatric care — including those who are homeless. Many psychiatric beds at hospitals in the region were shut down as a result of Unity's creation.
Since February 2018, the state has been investigating complaints from employees that patients have been assaulting other patients due to poor safety practices and understaffing at Unity.
The Oregon Health Authority, which licenses health care facilities, had been considered close to wrapping up its investigation, having issued a notice of findings to Legacy to allow the facility to submit what's known as a plan of correction. The state has thus declined to release documents providing more detail on the investigation.
The Tribune on Monday reported that Unity had closed its doors to most new patients, citing the OHA probe. Specifically, OHA had issued a notice of findings requiring "corrective" action, and Legacy said staff had to tend to the concerns.
"In order to implement these important improvements, we will temporarily close to admissions and remain on divert status to fully dedicate staff to these critical tasks and administer further risk mitigation protocols," said the leaked email first published by the Tribune.
According to the new statement from Legacy,
"Unity Center continues to fully cooperate with the Oregon Health Authority investigation and we are diligently working to address each deficiency outlined in the OHA's corrective action plan. We have made significant progress to ensure our patients are safe and being cared for in an environment dedicated to patient and staff safety and well-being.
"Our commitment to our patients, staff, partners, family and friends of loved ones being cared for at Unity Center and the larger community remains steadfast."
In March, a report by the state Occupational Safety and Health division of the Department of Consumer and Business Services documented safety problems at Unity and what appeared to be a concern widespread among some employees that the center's model is not working.
The state investigation discovered about 300 assaults and at least 23 injuries to employees had taken place in the center's first seven months of the center's operation. Investigators reported on a culture in which management didn't seem to know how often employees were being assaulted, and some staffers were afraid to say anything about the assaults — fearing it would hurt their careers.
Legacy at the time refused to comment, citing a lawsuit filed by its employees that faulted it for similar concerns.
It has since issued a statement saying that while mistakes were made during the center's first year, officials are committed to fixing things and being fully transparent, citing safety concerns highlighted by OHA.