Local News

Lawmakers express outrage over mental patient's death

Posted November 20, 2008 6:52 p.m. EST
Updated November 20, 2008 9:00 p.m. EST

— Some state lawmakers are calling for harsher disciplinary action for employees who were directly and indirectly responsible for neglecting a Cherry Hospital patient who died after 22 hours sitting essentially unattended in the same chair.

"Obviously, this is a failure of management," Sen. Martin Nesbitt, D-Buncombe, said Thursday at a meeting of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Mental Health, Developmental Disabilities and Substance Abuse Services.

"I mean, obviously," he continued. "I don't know how clearly you can state (that) this must be fixed now, immediately, starting at the top, and you put proper people in place."

Three employees were ultimately fired and two resigned following the April 28-29 incident involving Steven Howard Sabock, 50. Ten other employees were disciplined.

An autopsy found Sabock died of a pre-existing heart condition, but the surveillance video shows employees playing cards, watching TV and socializing over the course of four work shifts while a lethargic Sabock sits less than three feet away.

"I think everyone associated with that incident should not have a job," Rep. Beverly Earle, D-Mecklenburg, said.

Earlier this year, Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Dempsey Benton closed the ward where Sabbock stayed.

The state also hired an outside consulting firm to help the current management team move forward.

In September, Cherry Hospital lost the federal certification that allows it to receive payments for treating Medicare and Medicaid patients.

That means the state is having to pay an estimated $800,000 more a month until the facility can be recertified. It's unclear how long that will take.