The drowning of a severely disabled man left alone in a bathtub while under state care has triggered a change that will require immediate, top-level reporting of deaths in dozens of facilities run by the state Department of Human Services.

Under the new policy, DHS employees must report any suspicious deaths in department-operated facilities to Commissioner Lucinda Jesson within an hour. All other deaths at the facilities must be reported to her within 24 hours.

Jesson said she was frustrated to discover that it took nearly three days for her to find out about the Aug. 28 death of Gerald Edward Hyska, who drowned after a supervisor at a state-operated group home in Braham left him to answer the phone.

"This is the sort of thing that will get my very immediate attention," Jesson said. "I think in the past maybe commissioners didn't take the hands-on approach I'm taking to this. I think staff were following procedures that were in place for years perhaps. But it's a new day."

The change covers nearly 11,000 vulnerable adults who either live in group homes or are treated at psychiatric hospitals, chemical dependency units and other facilities run by the department.

But the agency could extend the policy to DHS employees who oversee private facilities licensed by the department, according to DHS officials.

The department is reviewing the way deaths at all facilities are reported as part of an inquiry initiated after Hyska's death.

"How notification of suspicious deaths in these DHS-regulated facilities should be handled is under consideration as we complete our review of relevant policies," DHS spokeswoman Terry Gunderson said in an e-mail.

Gov. Mark Dayton, who has been monitoring the Hyska case, said Jesson inherited a department that suffered from "a lack of commitment at the highest levels to the kind of quality of care and concern that she's committed to providing."

It will take some time "to instill a new culture," he said.

For years, advocates have pressed the state to improve oversight of community-based programs such as group homes, said Steve Larson, director of public policy with the ARC of Minnesota, an advocacy group for the disabled. Larson said stronger quality controls might have revealed that one staff member can't always properly care for four severely disabled individuals, as was the case when Hyska drowned.

"I think the lessons learned here is what do we need to do our community-based services so we can avoid these situations from happening in the future, or minimize the chances of them happening," Larson said.

Brad Schrade • 612-673-4777