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Continued: Questions hang over St. Peter security hospital's new leader

  • Article by: PAUL MCENROE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: September 9, 2011 - 3:13 PM

A health executive from Maine who ran a hospital that was fined for unsafe conditions and failure to document staff injuries has been hired to oversee the Minnesota Security Hospital in St. Peter, a facility that cares for the state's most volatile mentally ill patients.

David Proffitt, 49, started work Thursday, replacing Larry TeBrake, who was removed in April for many of the same safety issues that marred Proffitt's record in Maine. Last year state examiners described the St. Peter facility as dysfunctional, unsafe and unaccountable, setting the stage for a management shakeup at one of the state's most important mental health programs.

In a related issue, top administrators at the Minnesota Department of Human Services who vetted Proffitt admitted Thursday that they withheld critical information about his background from Commissioner Lucinda Jesson before she interviewed him for the job.

Assistant Commissioner Maureen O'Connell, who oversees state mental health and chemical dependency services, acknowledged in an interview that she did not inform Jesson about Proffitt's controversial tenure as CEO of the privately run Acadia Hospital in Bangor, Maine. Jesson learned about Proffit's background only after receiving an internal e-mail linked to a Maine newspaper account.

O'Connell said that at the time she didn't think the information was important enough to tell her commissioner.

"Do I wish I would have told her? Yes,'' O'Connell said. "It was a mistake on my part."

The department also conceded Thursday that because of restrictions in state law, its background check on Proffitt failed to turn up a 1992 misdemeanor arrest in Arizona.

Proffitt was arrested on suspicion of domestic violence against his then-wife, but the agency's administrators didn't know about it because state law limits criminal background checks to Minnesota court records.

After the Star Tribune inquired, an agency spokesperson said the Arizona records would have to be reviewed. In an interview, Proffitt said that he never struck his then-wife but got into a heated argument and held her against a wall before leaving his home. He said he spent a night in jail.

Still, O'Connell said that after doing extensive reference checks, she believes Proffitt is best suited for the St. Peter position.

The job will require transforming the environment at a hospital that has struggled to find the right balance between physical restraints and less restrictive behavioral methods for patients who could be a danger to themselves or staff.

Jesson said in an interview that O'Connell's omission was a mistake but she nonetheless agrees that Proffitt is the right candidate for the St. Peter job.

"I was troubled,'' Jesson said, adding that after she ordered that references be double-checked, she was satisfied Proffitt "will do a good job.''

She said that she and O'Connell will be paying close attention to Proffitt's work, including visits to the hospital next month.

Unsafe workplace

In January, Acadia Hospital was fined $11,700 by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for failing to provide a safe workplace for employees. OHSA found more than 100 assaults against staff members from 2008 to 2011.

In addition, authorities uncovered more than 75 injuries against staffers by violent patients that were not properly documented. Those attacks included employees suffering broken teeth, bites and punches.

"The serious citation points to the clear and pressing need for the hospital to develop a comprehensive and effective program that will evaluate, identify and prevent conditions that place workers in harm's way,'' an OSHA official wrote.

O'Connell and Mike Tessneer, who was removed from his job as head of the agency's state-operated services division last spring, interviewed Proffitt in June and again on Aug. 4.

That same day, Jesson interviewed Proffitt, according to DHS records, and a day later O'Connell offered him the job.

However, Jesson did not learn of the corrective actions against Proffitt's operation in Maine until five days later, records show.

O'Connell said that during the search she read accounts detailing the OSHA report.

She said it is not uncommon for mental health professionals involved in forensic care -- especially the use of physical restraints -- to run into public controversy, and said she came away satisfied that Proffitt had the ability to reform a large psychiatric hospital.

"We concluded from the information we had at the time, and how he answered the questions, that David Proffitt is a person who learns from his mistakes,'' O'Connell said. "As leaders, we all make mistakes, and what we can hope to do is use them as growth opportunities.''

The months-long investigation in Maine was prompted by employee complaints that there was a sharp rise in assaults by patients because of Proffitt's "no restraints'' policy.

At the time of the investigation, Proffitt said his policy was in keeping with national standards backed by federal mental health experts and advocate organizations, according to reports.

Proffitt will take over a security hospital that has a long history of tension among front-line staff members, who have often resisted new methods of controlling violent patients.

Like most hospitals for the mentally ill, state officials say, St. Peter has struggled to balance the rights of patients to be free of improper restraints with the safety of employees charged with providing humane care.

In an internal report last year, examiners noted: "Staff are committed to caring for some of the most difficult, dangerous, high-needs Minnesotans.

"They deserve to feel safe and to know the mission of the organization.''

Proffitt said his first task will be to rebuild solid relations with "labor-staff'' and his executive team, ensure greater safety for the staff and patients and find ways to ensure that the best staffers are retained.

"No one should come to work and get hurt, and we should provide a coercion-free treatment experience for our patients,'' Proffitt said during an interview with the Bangor Daily News.

Paul McEnroe • 612-673-1745

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