Donations for hospital patients spent on staff parties

May 20, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
The ABC7 News I-Team is used to meeting resistance when we ask tough questions, but this story is different. When we began investigating the Laguna Honda Hospital Patient Gift Fund, we did not expect a welcome wagon, but we sure did not expect the treatment we received either.

The money in the Patient Gift Fund is meant to provide Laguna Honda residents with simple pleasures we all take for granted -- a candy bar, a pair of slippers, a trip to a ball game. However, we got a tip that administrators have been raiding the Patient Gift Fund.

Laguna Honda's director of community relations, Marc Slavin, came after us at a monthly town hall meeting that was open to the public. We wanted to talk to the hospital director about the Patient Gift Fund, but Slavin takes extraordinary measures -- steps we have never seen -- to try and stop us.

What could have gotten Slavin so worked up?

This story is all about Laguna Honda's patients. They endure a life stripped down to the barest conditions. They are some of the city's poorest residents; many are severely disabled or nearing the end of their lives. They live in the hospital's open wards and own very little. Small comforts such as buying a cold soda from the hallway vending machine can be impossible with no money. That is where the Patient Gift Fund comes in.

"It's supposed to be for the comfort happiness and quality of life for the patients," said former Laguna Honda hospital physician, Dr. Maria Rivero. "That's the way I always understood it."

It is actually in the city's administrative code that the "Laguna Honda Hospital Gift Fund" should be "for the general benefit and comfort of patients," and that is echoed by the hospital's own website -- the donations "fund a range of amenities... that promote the independence of Laguna Honda residents." Things like bus trips off hospital grounds, a favorite food, or a small TV set.

Doctors such as Rivero and Derek Kerr often use the money to try to make the hospital feel like home.

"We've had patients, middle age people in their late 40s, who never had a birthday present," said Kerr. "And they got a birthday present and it was their last birthday and they cried and said I've never had a birthday party."

Kerr and Rivero started asking questions about how the gift fund was being spent after they asked for $100 last September to buy tacos for Spanish patients. The answer -- the gift fund had run out.

"We were told that the gift fund was bankrupt, which was a shock because we had thought there was over a million dollars in the gift fund," said Kerr.

There was no money for the patients' tacos, but just 15 days later, administrators spent $7,805 -- gift fund money -- on a barbeque for the nurses.

"To me, it's inexplicable," said Rivero. "I mean, Laguna Honda patients are the poorest of the poor, and basically they're taking from them to provide freshly catered meals for administrators and staff."

In fact, purchase orders obtained by the I-Team show administrators often tap the gift fund to buy expensive meals for themselves. There are two Aroma Buena catering bills from last year totaling almost $3,000 for a breakfast and two lunches.

In 2010, they spent $220 on a catered lunch featuring herb chicken breast sandwiches for 20 people; another $220 went to Extreme Pizza for the doctors.

Just this month, nursing directors and managers spent $1,600 on another catered meal. On the menu that day -- salmon filets with papaya and mango salsa.

Hospital Director Mivic Hirose ignored our phone calls for an interview. So, we showed up at her town hall meeting at the hospital and met the director of community relations, Marc Slavin. He would not keep his hands off us.

Noyes: Can I speak to you after the meeting?

Hirose: I have a meeting after the meeting so, sorry...

Noyes: [To Slavin] Do not touch me. Can you get your hand off me please? Do not touch me, do not touch me.

Slavin: Welcome to Laguna Honda.

Noyes: Do not touch me.

No matter what we do, he keeps on coming.

Noyes: Don't be touching us, don't be touching her [I-Team producer].

Later, Slavin says he wants to do an interview, and that does not go much better. We ask him about cutbacks on bus trips for patients, normally paid from the gift fund. Dementia patients who live in a locked ward, go on a trip to Crissy Field. It used to be a weekly outing -- now, they will wait a month or more to leave the building.

Slavin: Are you here today specifically because you want to champion bus trips on behalf of residents?

Noyes: I've got a lot of questions if you'd like to go on.

Slavin: I have questions too. We're having a conversation.

Noyes: Why not give more to the patients who this gift fund is meant for, as opposed to spending $2,000 on salmon with papaya and mango salsa for the staff?

Slavin: Well, the gift fund does supply food for residents.

But the patients are not getting salmon with papaya and mango salsa. The box lunch from that bus trip contains cold, fried chicken or a chicken salad sandwich, chips, Fig Newtons, and a soda.

We also wanted to know why the administration spent $2,300 from the gift fund on airline tickets for staff, and why they spent $3,416 on fancy, laser-etched Laguna Honda pedometers.

Slavin: Those are for nurses so that they can clock themselves as they walk from one end of the campus to the other.

Noyes: Why out of the gift fund for residents?

Slavin: It's not a gift fund for residents and I'll just say that one more time.

Just last month, after doctors Rivero and Kerr started asking questions, the hospital changed the gift fund policy to say donations are "for resident amenities and... staff development." They just never told the donors.

"It's about integrity and it's about accountability," said donor and advocate Sherrie Matza.

Matza is a gift fund donor and an Alzheimer's advocate. She also sits on an eldercare policy task force in Sacramento.

"Now that I know that they haven't done the right thing, I think that owe the city and they owe the community a response," said Matza. "And I want to know whether or not funds were misspent, and if they were misspent, I want them replenished."

As for the two doctors who spoke up, they are leaving the hospital after putting in more than 20 years each. They say doing the right thing cost them their jobs.

"The people who try to address these problems get marginalized, sometimes they get terminated," said Kerr.

But they felt the only chance for change was to bring the patients' case to you.

"They can't speak for themselves, so this is why we're here, to speak for them and to say this is wrong," said Rivero.

Kerr wanted to make sure you know that most of the hospital's doctors probably do not know the pizza they eat each week is paid for by that gift fund. He blames the administration, not the staff, for making bad decisions. The I-Team has confirmed that state officials are now looking into possible violations of the Patient Gift Fund policy.

ABC7 Extra:
We have posted the entire confrontation with the hospital's community relations director here and on the I-Team Blog.


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