WESLEY CHAPEL — More than two thousand people arrive each year at North Tampa Behavioral Health in extreme crisis.
They are checked in under a state law that lets mental health centers keep people who might hurt themselves or others for up to 72 hours.
But when that time is over, some patients find themselves held captive by the place that is supposed to protect them.
Priya Sarran-Persad had a psychologist threaten to commit her a second time if she didn’t volunteer to stay longer. Michael Jenkins hired a lawyer to help him get out but couldn’t for a week because the hospital never sent his paperwork to a judge. Robert Allen was held an extra three days for not participating in group therapy. His family was stunned. Allen is deaf and wasn’t given his hearing aids.
Each night they stayed, more money flowed into the psychiatric hospital.
The hospital illegally cuts patients off from their families. Then it uses loopholes in the statute to hold them longer than allowed, running up their bills while they are powerless to fight back.
Some patients describe getting virtually no psychiatric treatment. Meanwhile, people at risk of suicide have been allowed to hurt themselves, and helpless patients have been attacked on the ward.
For this, the hospital charges up to $1,500 per night.
TheTimesanalyzed thousands of hospital admission records and reviewed hundreds of police reports, state inspections, court records and financial filings.
The documents — and interviews with 15 patients and their families or advocates — show the hospital uses a variety of tactics to keep patients beyond 72 hours. Some are tricked into thinking they’ve waived their right to leave. Others are forced to wait for court hearings that never happen.
The patients’ stays are typically stretched just a few extra days. But keeping all of the hospital’s Baker Act patients even one additional night would add about $1.4 million in annual revenue, according to figures provided by the hospital.
North Tampa Behavioral hasn’t escaped the notice of state regulators. Since 2014, it has been cited 72 times for unsafe conditions and code violations, more than all but one other psychiatric hospital in Florida. Inspectors have zeroed in on unqualified and undertrained staff members who have put patients in danger or denied them basic rights.
Even still, the Wesley Chapel hospital has grown and thrived. It made $17 million last year in net annual revenue, mostly from taxpayer-funded insurance programs like Medicare. In recent years, it has had one of the highest operating profit margins of any free-standing psychiatric hospital in the state. Of the 26 facilities in Florida, half couldn’t break even.
Hospital leaders declined multiple interview requests.In a statement, CEO Bryon Coleman Jr. called theTimes’findings a “highly distorted and sensationalized portrayal that absolutely does not reflect NTBH’s overall record” across thousands of patients.
The hospital “strongly rejects any claim that it deliberately or willfully holds patients against their will absent a legitimate, clinically based determination,” he wrote, adding that decisions to extend stays are never “driven by financial motivations and/or any type of nefarious intent.”
Coleman said the hospital’s average operating margin since 2014 was “well below” the average for all psychiatric hospitals in Florida. But he calculated North Tampa Behavioral’s figure using 2014 data, which brought it down because the hospital was new and operating at a loss.
In 2015 and 2016, North Tampa Behavioral was one of the state’s eight most profitable psychiatric hospitals. It was in the top four in 2017, the most recent year for which statewide data is available, although its margin dropped in 2018.
Experts say North Tampa Behavioral isn’t the only place in Florida that has violated the Baker Act, which has provided life-saving support to people with mental illness for decades. But the psychiatric hospital stands out both for its success making money from Baker Act cases and the frequent problems with its care.
Photojournalist John Pendygraft and data reporter Connie Humburg contributed to this report. Contact Neil Bedi firstname.lastname@example.org.