State fires security hospital's director

  • Article by: PAUL MCENROE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 28, 2012 - 6:44 AM

In David Proffitt's seven months at St. Peter facility, staff problems got worse.

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David Proffitt

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David Proffitt, the embattled director of the crisis-ridden Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, was fired Tuesday by state officials, who cited his inability to communicate with his staff.

"He was unable to build the level of trust with staff needed to foster the environment necessary for the very significant changes that need to occur," said Anne Barry, assistant commissioner of the Department of Human Services. "It's no surprise that there is real disappointment. David had high hopes and dreams of what he could do at the facility."

Barry said that DHS Commissioner Lucinda Jesson ordered the dismissal just seven months after she had hired Proffitt to institute reforms at the hospital that cares for nearly 400 of the state's most dangerous and mentally ill patients.

Proffitt reportedly will work as a consultant to the agency for several months while he decides on his next move. He could not be reached for comment.

Proffitt's confrontational style contributed to the resignations or firings of six psychiatrists since he was hired in September, DHS officials said. His ineffective communication skills, in the end, crippled his ability to carry out a mission that included more training and less use of restraints and seclusion to control dangerous patients, they said. Hospital staffers resented what they said was his second-guessing their decisions about patient care -- heightened several months ago when he fired a psychiatrist and nurse over their allegedly forcing a violent man into seclusion after he reportedly threatened to kill the nurse.

In January, hospital psychiatrists and nurses filed formal complaints with the department alleging that Proffitt had yelled, pounded his fists in anger and made inappropriate sexual remarks contributing to a hostile work environment.

Jesson hired a Minneapolis law firm to investigate. Its report, released Tuesday, did not substantiate the accusations.

Even so, Barry said, "enough concerns have been raised, and given the urgency with which change must be accomplished, we believe it is in the best interests of Minnesota Security Hospital and the patients we serve to change leadership."

In January, a yearlong licensing investigation uncovered maltreatment of two patients at the hospital.

One man, believed to be hiding a weapon in his mattress, was secluded and forced to sleep on a concrete slab for 25 nights in 2010, long before Proffitt's arrival. As a result, Jesson ordered the hospital's license be put on conditional status and she also fined the hospital $2,000 -- the maximum under state law. She also directed Barry to spend at least one day a week in St. Peter to help bridge the operational divide between Proffitt and the staff.

When that investigation began, Proffitt said in an interview that he did not believe his style interfered with his ability to run the hospital. "This is what I find in life: Reality is perception, and I strive to be principle-centered, transparent," he said at the time.

Barry said that Proffitt has been replaced by Carol Olson, who was administrator of the Community Behavioral Health Hospitals in Rochester and St. Peter. She has more than 25 years experience in adult mental health services. Dr. Steven Pratt will be the hospital's medical director. Barry said they will have to rebuild the psychiatric staff, hiring at least three doctors and possibly more clinical nurses.

Rocky start

Soon after his arrival last fall from a hospital post in Maine, Proffitt found himself at odds with various groups who, in interviews with the Star Tribune, said he lacked a clear vision of how to turn around a hospital described in an internal report as unsafe, unaccountable and dysfunctional.

That report, obtained by the Star Tribune last year, said regulators found a "pattern" of willful violations by staff and administrators who were incapable of changing the culture.

Proffitt also fell under suspicion from staff who questioned his management skills. While in Maine, Proffitt directed a private hospital that was fined more than $11,000 by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for unsafe conditions and failure to document more than 75 staff injuries by violent patients.

Further, Jesson's top staff did not thoroughly vet Proffitt's background before he was hired. The commissioner admitted in an interview that she learned of the federal investigation only after receiving an internal e-mail linked to a Maine newspaper story.

Assistant Commissioner Maureen O'Connell, who oversees the state's mental health and chemical dependency services, acknowledged in an interview in September that she withheld information about Proffitt's controversial background. She said that at the time she didn't think it was important information. In retrospect, she said, it was a mistake to not inform Jesson.

Despite admitting she was troubled by the reports and ordering that Proffitt's references be double-checked, Jesson said she still thought he was the right person for the job.

The governor's visit

Jesson's frustration over the deteriorating situation led Gov. Mark Dayton to tour the facility with her last month. He met with Proffitt, medical staff, psychologists, social workers and security counselors.

Dayton said in an interview that he came away with a sense that "there is a crisis of patient abuse" at the hospital due to a lack of training and confusion over use of restraints and seclusion. He said he would leave Proffitt's future to Jesson.

Barry said that despite the upheaval, she believes the hospital's culture can be changed quickly because the staffers see that administrators trying to work with closely with them. "Change happens when people trust the people who are leading that change," Barry said.

Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745

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