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Gov. Polis responds to concerns about validity of CDPHE's 'surprise inspections' at mental health hospitals

Insiders allege leaders at Johnstown Heights Behavioral Health are tipped off by state regulators
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Posted at 6:01 PM, Aug 25, 2023

JOHNSTOWN, Colo. — Colorado's governor is asking for help identifying a leak inside the state's Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). This comes as insiders have accused CDPHE of tipping off leaders at Johnstown Heights Behavioral Health ahead of its so-called surprise inspections.

Denver7 Investigates took these allegations to Gov. Jared Polis, who for weeks, would not agree to an interview despite multiple requests.

In 2021, Polis promised to transform the state’s behavioral health system, signing a bill to change and improve how his agency would deliver mental health and substance use services to Colorodans.

“We all know we can do better on mental health in Colorado,” Polis said during a virtual signing of the bill. “Making sure people get care when they need it… identifying gaps and coordinating agencies.”

But former staff and patients at a 92-bed mental health facility north of Denver say the quality of care there is not up to the governor’s standard. For 10 months, Denver7 Investigates has exposed critical failures inside Johnstown Heights, a facility licensed by the state to provide care to some of Colorado's most vulnerable mental health patients.

“I think it's terrible. I think it's awful,” one former patient, who wanted to remain anonymous, said in October.

“I'm saying they are all about the profit,” another anonymous patient said. “They are all about doing anything to make a person stay so they can charge them more.”

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Denver7 | Investigates

Former nurses speak out against Johnstown Heights Behavioral Health

Tony Kovaleski
9:57 PM, Dec 02, 2022

In November, Denver7 Investigates brought to light the questionable death of Christopher Dickson, 39, who died inside the detox unit at Johnstown Heights. Documents from a state inspection after his death uncovered that, at one time, Dickson was not checked by staff at the facility for 16 hours.

In May, BJ Potts, a former nurse at the facility, called Johnstown Heights “a s***hole.”

“Nothing they're doing is helping the patients. There's no safety measures. And you're lucky if you can get out of there alive,” Potts said.

Potts also responded to the patient's death.

“He should not have died. It was not an accident that he died,” Potts said. “It was negligence, that's why he died.”

Larimer County Coroner Stephen Hanks oversaw Dickson’s autopsy, and now shares in the questions surrounding his death. He told Denver7 Investigates in May that he believes Dickson should still be alive today.

“I think that the elements are there that both civil and criminal negligence could apply, and that those arguments could be made," Hanks said.

Since October, records obtained by Denver7 Investigates show state inspections at Johnstown Heights have uncovered 20 violations, though regulators have not issued a single fine. Twice, inspections at the facility have resulted in an immediate jeopardy designation, the state’s most serious classification for a mental health hospital. Despite that, the doors of Johnstown Heights Behavioral Health remain open to new patients.

Insiders tell Denver7 Investigates the facility is being tipped off ahead of inspections, giving leaders at Johnstown Heights time to clean up and staff up before state regulators pay a visit.

“Whenever they had the state come in, they would staff up," one former nurse said. “They would call people in and say, 'It's all hands on deck. Everybody's got to be here.' So it appeared to the state that we were fully staffed."

Ahead of a public appearance, Denver7 Investigates met Polis to question why the CDPHE, which his office oversees, is accused of revealing when the so-called surprise inspections will happen.

In-person, Polis told Denver7 Investigates he always has time for questions. But correspondence between Denver7 and his staff tells a different story.

“We are unable to accommodate this request,” one text message read in response to Denver7’s request for an interview.

“We appreciate your work on this and respectfully decline,” the governor’s team sent in an email after Denver7 provided a list of eight dates over a two-week period.

In front of cameras, however, Polis changed his tune and was willing to answer questions. When asked to react to Denver7 Investigates' reporting, the governor said he wants to be made aware of any leaks by his state regulators.

“No institution should ever get any kind of heads up for a surprise visit. Now to be clear, there are other kinds of visits that they do that are not surprise visits,” Polis said.

Polis answers concerns about validity of CDPHE's 'surprise inspections' at mental health hospitals

Despite the governor’s suggestion, data obtained by Denver7 shows all 25 of the inspections conducted at Johnstown Heights since October were intended to be a surprise.

“If there's any incidents that you uncover or that your sources can share with us… we want to make sure we hold anybody responsible, fully accountable,” Polis said.

He added if regulators were leaking surprise inspections to facilities, that would be a violation of state policy.

“So if in fact that occurred and we do know who did it, then they would be accountable, which means they could lose their job with the state if, in fact, they did that,” Polis continued. “We want to make sure that no one inappropriately gets a heads up for a surprise visit. But as a whole, as a system, we need to do a lot better on mental health.”

Responding to Denver7’s reporting on Johnstown Heights, Polis has launched a special hotline and email address, asking for tips to identify the state employee or employees leaking inspection dates and times to Johnstown Heights.

To report a state regulator, call 303-866-7191 or email cdhs_bha_complaint@state.co.us.

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