Patient’s death at Eagle Eye Farm leads to state probe

Vermont AG William Sorrell. VTD/Josh Larkin

Vermont AG William Sorrell. VTD/Josh Larkin

At least two state agencies are investigating a small mental health treatment facility in East Burke where a patient turned up missing and was found dead several miles away on Jan. 5.

Both the Vermont Division of Licensing and Protection and the Vermont Attorney General’s Office confirm they are looking into Eagle Eye Farm and the circumstances surrounding the untimely death of Justin Ponzio.

Assistant Attorney General Linda Purdy said her office is probing whether there are possible Medicaid fraud issues involved at Eagle Eye Farm. Fran Keeler, assistant director of the division of licensing, said her office is looking into the circumstances surrounding Ponzio’s death under its jurisdiction as a licensing authority.

Ponzio, 31, was under the care of Eagle Eye Farm, a licensed “therapeutic residential facility” that treats “traumatic brain injured survivors as well as other ‘at-risk’ populations,” according to its website. Sarah Alexander, the current manager of Eagle Eye Farm, declined comment.

Ponzio wandered away from one of the buildings used by Eagle Eye Farm in the town of Westmore in the Northeast Kingdom the evening of Jan. 5. His body was found after a staffer called 911 to report him missing on the morning of Jan. 6, unclothed and lying in a fetal position in below-freezing temperatures a couple miles away, according to state police Sgt. Darren Annis of the Derby barracks.

The probe into Eagle Eye Farm comes as the state of Vermont has embarked on an ambitious shift in mental health care to a more community-based model of treatment following the closure of the 54-bed Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury by flooding after Tropical Storm Irene. The Legislature passed a bill authorizing the overhaul and it is expected to be signed by the governor this week.

A key issue in extensive legislative discussions on the new statute implementing the overhaul was assuring “the highest quality of care” in the new system through a broad array of reports and metrics, as well as creating an oversight system for patients under the “custody of the commissioner of mental health.”

VTDigger has learned that Eagle Eye Farm was cited for a number of serious deficiencies in two unannounced inspections by the Division of Licensing and Protection, which conducts inspections and oversight for the federal Medicaid program.

Ponzio is a former state hospital patient who had been under the state’s custody, but Mental Health Commissioner Patrick Flood said he didn’t know if he was under any continued state jurisdiction at the time of his death. His placement at Eagle Eye Farm was done privately, according to police.

The first inspection was conducted June 27, 2011, and found the facility had: no training for administration of medications in providing care to its clients; had not conducted background checks on three of four employees; had no treatment plans or discharge plans for two of its residents; had outdated and incomplete records on its patients; did not have clear criteria for eligibility of the people it was treating; and was providing custodial instead of therapeutic care.

A state official said the deficiencies at Eagle Eye Farm were not all technical or bureaucratic in nature, especially the ones involving medications.”

In addition, other record-keeping issues were identified related to medications and treatment, including missing records, as well as lack of training in fire drills.

The Eagle Eye Farm administrator at the time, Jennifer Whitmore, provided a detailed response and remedial actions the facility was taking, according to a July 22, 2011, letter by the licensing division.

The state subsequently reinspected the facility in an unannounced visit on Dec. 12, roughly a month before Ponzio died, and found that Eagle Eye Farm “failed to correct” some violations from the earlier visit. The deficiencies noted included failure to develop treatment plans for two of the three residents, and continued issues with records on the patients staying at the facility.

A remedial plan was submitted by the current administrator, Alexander, on Jan. 23, several weeks after Ponzio wandered away from his housing.

Larry Thompson, who was director of psychological services at the state hospital until he retired in 2008, said he has visited Eagle Eye Farm and felt the operation did a good job with patients such as Ponzio who came from the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury.

“It has done very good work with some of our toughest clients,” he said.

At the same time, he said, state hospital staff who knew Ponzio “were pretty upset” about his death, based on comments he has read on Facebook regarding Ponzio’s care. He said that left him with “feelings torn in a couple of directions” about Ponzio’s care.

In emails to VTDigger, state hospital staffers questioned whether Ponzio’s placement at the farm was appropriate and whether he received a sufficient the level of supervision, as well as whether he should have been released from the state hospital.

Eagle Eye Farm was started in 1992 and in a 1995 Vermont Labor Board decision involving a medical reimbursement issue, it was described as being located on “100-plus acres of woodlands and pastures” with a large barn, large farmhouse and a converted house that is a residence for clients as well as staff.

Thompson said it was in a “very pretty area” in farm country and offered work programs along with therapy, and said he understood how appealing it could be to a family.

But the Vermont Labor Board decision also raised several issues about the training and capabilities of the staff in a ruling at that time that the facility was not qualified to receive state funds for care.

Keeler, of the licensing division, said the state generally conducts one inspection a year and when problems are noted the agency conducts a follow-up as it did with Eagle Eye Farm. As a result of the Ponzio case, she said “we may have an additional report forthcoming.”

According to Keeler, the state has 37 therapeutic community residences it oversees, which are defined as places that provide short-term individualized treatment to three or more residents with major life adjustment problems. A total of 15 registered nurse surveyors in her division check compliance with state regulations and to assure proper care is provided in a wide range of settings, from large nursing homes to assisted living facilities and residential homes. She called the staff “well trained” and noted they all must pass a national surveyor test.

Keeler said the deficiencies at Eagle Eye Farm were not all technical or bureaucratic in nature, especially the ones involving medications.

“That is significant for us,” she said.

While noting that he had not seen the deficiency reports, Thompson agreed that medication issues are important in any treatment.

Eagle Eye Farm’s website notes that its locale “enhances security relative to residents that may be at-risk for elopement.”

Ponzio’s medical history is confidential information and as a result several questions remain unanswered about the 1998 graduate of Oxbow High School. According to state police, he was housed in a separate facility located in Westmore away from the main farm at Eagle Eye but reports do not indicate if he had 24-hour supervision. Also unclear is whether he was in a locked facility when he walked away from his home.

The question of how he was housed is relevant because Ponzio has a record of elopement. He was involved in a dramatic incident at the Vermont State Hospital in August of 2007 in which he apparently walked away from the hospital and jumped out in front of cars on Interstate 89, nearly being hit several times. He was eventually rescued by state police but had to be subdued by being Tasered, according to a state police report.

Thompson noted that private facilities such as Eagle Eye Farm are unlike the state hospital in that they provide patients more freedom and access to the outdoors, which can present supervision problems. Even under tighter restrictions and strict supervision at the state hospital, he noted, the state hospital faced two suicides that occurred in 2003, which resulted in loss of the hospital’s federal certification.

Neither the attorney general’s office or the licensing division could say when their investigations will conclude or if any charges might be brought.

Andrew Nemethy

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