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San Diego hospital accused of 'patient dumping'

Homeless advocates tell CBS 8 San Diego City Attorney is preparing possible legal action nearly a year after putting Scripps Health on notice

SAN DIEGO — This story has been updated to include a statement from the City Attorney's Office.

For more than three years now, Amie Zamudio has driven the streets of Hillcrest at night looking for elderly people in hospital gowns. 

Zamudio, a homeless advocate who devotes her time to helping un-housed seniors, says she finds seniors draped in hospital gowns and still wearing hospital-issued socks far too often.

Now, Zamudio says she is working with the San Diego City Attorney's Office to try and stop what she calls "patient dumping."

Zamudio says she is now speaking to seniors who have recently been discharged from Scripps Mercy Hospital with nowhere to go, nothing to eat, and unable to manage their medications.

"When we say they don't have anywhere to immediately go, it's true," says Zamudio. "We see a lot of seniors between 11 at night and six in the morning just waiting for buses to maybe go to a shelter to see if they have a bed available."

Anthony Guerin found himself in a similar spot last week. The 71-year-old says he was discharged from Scripps, put into a taxi, and dropped off in the middle of downtown.

"I was [at the hospital] because….I couldn't take care of myself anymore," said an emotional Guerin. "It made me feel a little abandoned, but not a whole lot because I'm used to people dumping me and going away," Guerin said.

State law requires hospitals to have a homeless discharge policy in place. For homeless people who are not in need of long-term treatment, hospitals are required to provide a meal and find them a shelter or safe place to go upon their release. 

However, finding an open shelter bed can be time-consuming and difficult, especially locating open beds for seniors who may have accessibility requirements. 

Credit: Amie Zamudio

"Even if there are beds available, we have been told that it is nearly impossible to get a bottom bunk for seniors," says homeless advocate Joanne Standlee.

Standlee operates Housing 4 the Homeless along with Zamudio.

Standlee says, as is the case with all homeless issues, it falls on city and county governments to provide the resources.

"It's the entire system that is failing those experiencing homelessness," says Standlee. "These hospitals are put in an untenable situation, trying to find open beds, which is very difficult to do, while being expected to treat others especially with rising covid cases. It's the city and the county that are failing us. It is the system that has failed."

Credit: Amie Zamudio
Homeless senior recently discharged from hospital

But City Attorney Mara Elliott has gone after Scripps Health before over what her office said are "inhumane" policies.

In 2021, the City Attorney's Office filed a civil enforcement action against Scripps Health after staff at Scripps Mercy released a 68-year-old disabled man who suffered from severe schizophrenia without any plan or assistance. 

At the time, attorneys for the city said a court had ordered the man to be placed in a secure skilled nursing facility after getting discharged. 

But despite the court order and the opinion of Scripps' doctors about the man's condition, staff sent the man to a group home where he was left without any care. City Attorney staff stated they later found the man severely unkempt, and off of his prescriptions - his bed sheets, according to the release, were soiled with feces.

“Our Office is putting San Diego hospitals on notice that ‘patient dumping’ is inhumane, illegal, and will not be tolerated,” San Diego City Attorney Mara Elliott said in an August 2021 statement. “Scripps Health knew this vulnerable patient could not care for himself, and instead of putting his well-being first, left him to fend for himself. This conduct is inexcusable and horrific.”

At the time, Scripps denied the claims.

On these latest claims, a Scripps spokesperson told CBS8:

"Scripps Health works with patients to develop a discharge plan, giving them discharge instructions, providing the patient with information and access to community resources for homeless individuals (including shelter referral information if the patient desires), and providing a transportation voucher to their chosen destination. While we create and provide a hospital discharge plan, the patient has the right to accept or decline the resources offered.

We’re proud of the tireless efforts by our dedicated staff in helping patients address what can be very challenging situations in the hospital discharge process. We have no reason to believe there has been any deviation in our adherence to our discharge process."

In regards to county services, a spokesperson said the county has several programs to help seniors in need.

"The County’s Adult Protective Services’ (APS) new program, Home Safe, also serves seniors. Clients can be referred to Home Safe through our Call Center (800-339-4661) and will be screened for program qualifications. 

In addition, the County’s Aging and Independence Services’ (AIS) care management programs, such as the Multipurpose Senior Services Program (MSSP), may help prevent homelessness caused by a medical emergency. Care managers work with a client’s support network to ensure bills are paid during their hospital stay and also work with hospital discharge planners to ensure a safe return home by connecting them to appropriate in-home services."

In a statement, a spokesperson for the San Diego City Attorney's Office said the office "filed a lawsuit to stop Scripps from discharging people who are unable to care for themselves."

Added the statement, "People in need should be provided care based on the sound advice of their health care providers, and not according to their ability to pay. The absence of insurance should never play a part in health care decisions, and the City Attorney’s Office is committed to enforcing legal safeguards to ensure that this does not happen in our community. City taxpayers should not have to pick up the tab for Scripps Health, a $2.9 billion corporation with a moral responsibility to care for its patients.  

We are continuing to prosecute the case and welcome any tips, whistleblower complaints, or additional instances of mistreatment – whether homeless or not."

 

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