The list of failings in the New Jersey Office of Public Defender’s ongoing lawsuit the Greystone Park Psychiatric Hospital in Parsippany is extensive.
Psychiatrists and other employees gave sworn statements in June describing how violence, mismanagement and despair have become “normalized.” One doctor said the institution was “unsuitable for human beings.” But the Public Defender’s lawsuit also raises serious questions about Greystone’s ability to provide adequate medical care. The details of Michael Vecchio’s death illustrate what is at stake if conditions don’t change.
Before he died at age 29, Michael Vecchio of Hanover spent the last three months of his life in hospitals. He didn’t have a terminal illness — he had schizophrenia. And had he not been at Greystone for most of that time, his mother Beth Vecchio believes he would still be alive. She is suing the state and Morristown Medical Center for wrongful death and negligence.
Privacy laws prevented Ms. Vecchio from knowing her son had stopped eating weeks earlier until an ambulance rushed him, writhing in pain, to Morristown Medical Center. He died the following day in January 2017. “How dare they use the word ‘hospital’ in their name. They let him starve for at least 30 days.” said Ms. Vecchio. “It’s a baby-sitting service with pills.”
No one would confuse Greystone or the state’s three other psychiatric facilities with typical acute-care hospitals, which are equipped with an emergency department, an intensive care unit and an extensive suite of specialty services. But the U.S. Centers of Medicare and Medicaid Services requires government-funded psychiatric facilities like Greystone to submit a plan to respond to medical emergencies, either on-site or off, and have trained staff is expected to be capable of carrying it out.
More than two years ago, New Jersey stopped training its psychiatric hospital employees in advanced cardiac life support and removed key equipment on the mobile “code carts” to respond to cardiac arrests and other life-threatening emergencies. These decisions were made, according to the public defender’s lawsuit, to reduce the state’s potential liability and save money.
Only a doctor has the authority to call for a code cart in an emergency, “significantly limiting the opportunity during what is frequently a narrow window of time to administer lifesaving measures,” Greystone physician Walter Bakum has said in statement. And even after a doctor says “immediate/emergent transportation” is essential, a transport within 45 minutes to 60 minutes is still “acceptable,” according to the state’s policy manual.
Dr. Bakum went on to cite instances in which four patients and one employee died because emergencies were not treated like emergencies.
A federal judge overseeing the public defender’s lawsuit last month ordered state and the public defender into mediation, which is scheduled to begin next week, according to court records.