The upscale Sierra Tucson treatment facility has agreed to pay a state fine related to the suicide of a patient earlier this year.
But operators of the for-profit treatment center included a caveat when they signed the agreement to pay $2,000 to the Arizona Department of Health Services — they are paying the fine, but it doesn’t mean they made any mistakes, they say.
“Licensee has entered into this agreement for settlement purposes only. Nothing in this agreement is an admission of violation, wrongdoing or liability on the part of the licensee,” says a written statement under the heading of “provider response.” The agreement was signed May 27.
The state fined Sierra Tucson for violating of four rules and regulations related to patient care and safety. The fine was $500 per violation, and the infractions included not ensuring that a resident’s assessment information is reviewed and updated when additional information is identified.
The facility, on a 160-acre site at 39580 S. Lago del Oro Parkway along the Pinal/Pima County border, has 124 beds, plus 15 “acute level” beds.
It has programs to help patients with addictions, mood disorders, chronic pain, eating disorders and trauma through its “Sierra Model” of integrating therapies like massage, yoga and acupuncture with traditional psychiatry. Most patients are in their late 30s and early 40s. A majority of patients self-pay at a cost of about $1,300 per day.
On Jan. 2, a Sierra Tucson resident with a history of depression and anxiety hanged himself with a shoelace from a shower head, a Pima County autopsy report says. He died three days later at Oro Valley Hospital.
The patient was at a “very high” risk for self-harm when he arrived at Sierra Tucson, state records say. On Jan. 1, the patient had told his wife over the phone that he wanted to kill himself, state investigators found. Less than 24 hours later, the woman’s husband was dead.
The state’s report found no evidence of documentation in the patient’s medical record that he was reassessed after he told his wife he wanted to kill himself.
Bob Boatman, the Phoenix-based lawyer for the patient, would not comment on the fine. He had previously told the Star that the suicide was a result of negligence by Sierra Tucson.
The case marks the third time since 2009 that Sierra Tucson, owned by California-based CRC Health Group, has had problems with supervising patients, including a death in 2011.
In 2009, it paid $3,500 to the Arizona Department of Health Services related to two incidents involving patients leaving the grounds. One patient with a history of psychosis left without permission. In the second incident, a patient with suicidal thoughts, who had also threatened to rape another patient, was discharged and left in his private car without any documentation that he was safe to leave by himself.
In 2011, Dr. Kenneth Litwack, a 71-year-old Orange County physician with anxiety and depression, disappeared from Sierra Tucson. Two weeks later he was found dead near Sierra Tucson’s stable, about a quarter-mile from the main building, in an area off the facility’s footpaths and trails. His body was so decomposed that an autopsy report could not determine how he died.
After Litwack’s death, the state fined Sierra Tucson $9,250 for violations including failing to appropriately allocate staff to supervise patients. The state also placed the facility on a probationary license.
Litwack’s family filed a lawsuit against Sierra Tucson in 2012, accusing it of improperly supervising patients. The lawsuit, which contends that, “a drive toward improving profitability at the expense of patient care and safety caused Dr. Litwack’s death,” is scheduled to go to trial in Pinal County Superior Court in September.
In a recent interview, then-Sierra Vista executive director Stephen Fahey said that the facility doesn’t want to resort to ankle bracelets to monitor patients, but that it has a vigilant check-in system. Fahey, who became executive director in 2012, “is stepping down to pursue professional opportunities elsewhere,” a statement from Sierra Tucson says.
On Monday, Philip Herschman took over as interim executive director of the facility. He’s been with its parent company, CRC Health Group, for more than 12 years as the chief clinical officer. Sierra Tucson is the company’s flagship facility.
Herschman said he’s excited about the opportunity to continue the facility’s work and develop cutting-edge treatment interventions for those struggling with addiction and other complex behavioral health disorders.
Before joining CRC in 2002, Herschman served as chief executive officer of Behavioral Health Concepts, a national mental-health management company that he founded in 1993.
The 31-year-old Sierra Tucson has been owned by CRC Health Group, a subsidiary of Boston-based Bain Capital financial services company, since 2006. CRC Health Group bills itself as the largest specialized behavioral-health-care service provider in the U.S., seeing more than 30,000 patients per day at 115 locations.