State Politics

Death, understaffing claims prompt another investigation of state treatment center

The Southwest Idaho Treatment Center (SWITC) in Nampa provides residential care to people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses. It is run by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare.
The Southwest Idaho Treatment Center (SWITC) in Nampa provides residential care to people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses. It is run by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Idaho Statesman file

The watchdog arm of the Idaho Legislature is looking into complaints about mistreatment of people with severe disabilities who live at the Southwest Idaho Treatment Center in Nampa.

State lawmakers asked the Office of Performance Evaluations to start the investigation earlier this year. The evaluation will look at several things, including how SWITC is run, how it is held accountable for providing good care, and its staff workload, qualifications and training.

The center once was called the Idaho State School and Hospital. For about the past decade, SWITC has been tasked with rehabilitating its residents, with the goal of getting them back into the community. Many end up staying at the center for long periods, though, or they cycle in and out.

SWITC came under scrutiny last year after a resident’s sudden death and an internal investigation by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare into mistreatment of residents.

Former employees and patients’ families have threatened to sue. The state settled one lawsuit earlier this year, agreeing to pay $10,000 to the mother of a resident who died. In June, a Health and Welfare spokesman said Director Russ Barron was forming an advisory board in response to SWITC’s issues.

State Sens. Cherie Buckner-Webb and Michelle Stennett and Rep. Caroline Nilsson Troy asked the Legislature in March to order an evaluation of SWITC. Their request, and the formal evaluation summary that followed, both reference the Idaho Statesman’s investigative reporting into the death of resident Drew Rinehart and allegations of abuse and understaffing at the facility.

Among other things, the Statesman reported that SWITC did not have the required number of people on staff during about two-thirds of all shifts from January 2017 to at least mid-July 2017, with extreme understaffing in late and graveyard shifts. The center’s administrator told a state inspector “she was aware of low staffing issues but was not able to implement more staff due to budget constraints.”

“During the period that verified client abuse was occurring, the Department of Health and Welfare sought and obtained statutory authority to create a new facility (the Developmental Disability Secure Facility), for some of the same residents, which would not need to meet the federal standards for client protection and active treatment,” the lawmakers wrote in a letter to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee. “The new facility would be ... administered and staffed by the same people. As Idaho starts this new facility, funded by state general fund dollars without the federal Medicaid match, we would be well served to have a complete understanding of the serious problems and compliance failures at SWITC as well as whether improved management, staffing, and training could resolve these issues.”

SWITC had about two dozen residents, about 130 full-time-equivalent employees and an annual budget of about $11 million as of July.

The office will complete its report by early in the 2019 legislative session, according to OPE Director Rakesh Mohan. The OPE is an independent and nonpartisan agency of the Legislature.

The study on complaints about patient treatment at SWITC is one of four that OPE is undertaking. It’s also looking at child neglect, collection of court fees and fines, and the impact of state mandates on local government.

Audrey Dutton is an investigative reporter for the Statesman. Contact her at 208-377-6448, or on Twitter at @audreydutton.

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