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River City Care and Rehabilitation on defense after claim
By Tiffeny Owens
The Decatur Daily

Daily photo by Jeronimo Nisa
River City Care and Rehabilitation Center.

A Decatur health care facility is defending itself against a Mississippi law firm’s claim that it did not have proper policies in place to prevent mistreatment of patients.

Hattiesburg law firm McHugh Fuller is compiling alleged cases of abuse and neglect against River City Care and Rehabilitation’s owner, SunBridge Healthcare Corp., which owns 198 other facilities across the country.

The law firm is seeking residents who have, or who have relatives they suspect may have, suffered injuries or neglect while being treated at River City Care and Rehabilitation.

The facility provided The Daily a document Tuesday that outlines guidelines prohibiting neglect, abuse and theft of patients’ property.

River City Rehabilitation Administrator Dana Briley said those policies have been in place since 2002 and were updated in 2005 and again in 2008.

She, her staff and several patients say McHugh Fuller’s full-page advertisement that ran in The Daily is false and misleading.

“It insinuates we break bones and hurt people here, and that’s just absolutely false,” Briley said. “It hurts us because we’ve worked very hard to build up our reputation over the past 15 years.”

The 180-bed facility on 14th Avenue Southeast completed a $3 million renovation last year, which added space for a therapy room and other improvements, Briley said.

“We care about the residents here, and our staff works very hard,” Assistant Administrator Kathi Dawn said.

Attorney Jim McHugh said his firm, which specializes in nursing home abuse litigation, got involved after it received a phone call from an individual — he would not say who or when — about possible issues at the facility.

His staff then reviewed state survey records for all SunBridge Healthcare facilities, which indicated individual problems that were “systemic” and “facility-wide.”

A call to SunBridge Healthcare’s corporate headquarters was not returned Tuesday.

“We’ve had overwhelming response from the ads,” McHugh said. “SunBridge has had a troubled history of issues at its facilities, but I’ve also talked to people who have had loved ones that have stayed in one of their facilities that say they were treated great and had no problems.”

“People just need to be more vigilant and proactive, and if they see something, report it to the proper agency.”

The Alabama Department of Public Health, the agency that oversees health care facilities such as River City Rehabilitation, sends surveyors annually to talk with patients and staff and note any issues.

Its records show two deficiencies were found at River City Rehabilitation this year regarding catheters and palatable food.

Last year, the agency filed six reports of deficiencies, from patients’ privacy while using the telephone to the temperature of food.

Records show in 2003 that the state found the facility, then operating under the name SunBridge Care and Rehabilitation, had “failed to attempt or document any reference checks” on five employees of 54 newly hired workers.

The ADPH found this deficiency fell under the facility’s requirement to have written policies and procedures regarding patient mistreatment, neglect and abuse.

ADPH General Counsel Pat Ivie said River City Rehabilitation has no pending enforcement action against it.

Five River City Rehabilitation residents and 12 of its employees have written letters this month complaining about the advertisement.

They say it has damaged the facility’s reputation. In 2010, it won the American Health Care Association’s National Quality award for its commitment to quality patient services.

“We have so many dedicated employees that love our patients and residents,” Brenda Sutton, the facility’s director of nurses, wrote in a letter to The Daily. “They (McHugh Fuller) are ambulance chasers who are in it for the money, not the patients.”

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