Investigating possible nursing home homicides

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In New Orleans, the coroner is reportedly investigating allegations of possible euthanasia in critically ill patients at nursing homes and hospitals. Meanwhile, the Louisiana state attorney general is spearheading an investigation into six hospitals and 13 nursing homes where all of those patients died during Katrina and during the flooding that immediately followed. 

When you're in charge of a hospital, when you're in charge of a nursing home, you have a higher standard of care that you owe people that are taken care of.  Let's look at it this way.  Certainly, if we have to take our friends or loved ones to a hospital or if we have to take members of our family, God forbid, to a nursing home, we expect them to be treated much better than if they were staying in a hospital or elsewhere. 

There's a higher responsibility.  There are higher levels of regulations.  And when people that control these institutions don't step up, they should be held liable.

On Monday, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti said the patients should not have been left behind.  "You decide you want to leave the hurricane, that's fine.  But when you have the custody, you have somebody placed in your care, you have to use reasonable care to protect them,"  he said.

That's the $64,000 question right now.  Was reasonable care used in this case or not? 

On Monday, Sheriff Jack Stephens of St. Bernard Parish appeared on 'Scarborough Country' to discuss the issue. To read an excerpt of their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

JOE SCARBOROUGH: What's your take on the investigation into these deaths?  Do you believe, do others believe that they could have been prevented at hospitals and also at nursing homes if reasonable care had been used to save these elderly people? 

JACK STEPHENS, SHERIFF OF ST. BERNARD PARISH:  Well, Joe, this is a question that came up immediately after we discovered that there were multiple fatalities at St. Rita's Nursing Home. 

Questions immediately started to rise as to what the protocol should have been at other medical facilities and senior resident facilities in the New Orleans metropolitan area.  And I think it's just an ongoing tragedy with regards to this horrible weather event that we have had here that has exposed so many weaknesses in our emergency systems and certainly in our evacuation system. 

I just heard what you just mentioned about standard of care.  Someone asked me whether I thought the attorney general's original charges were warranted.  And my response was, I had almost 400 prisoners in my parish jail and they were in my custody.  And I took care to evacuate them.  And I think the residents of these nursing homes should have been at least afforded the same opportunity as the inmates that I had in Parish Prison, and that is to escape the worst, the worst of the storm. 

SCARBOROUGH:  You know, Sheriff Stephens, I have got friends that own nursing homes over in Mississippi in the areas that are impacted.  They had an evacuation plan.  They got their people out safely. 

And, really, but what you say tonight I think is even more compelling, that, in the wake of Katrina, as this hurricane was crashing on shores, your inmates got better treatment than senior citizens in New Orleans whose families, whose loved ones paid a lot of money to have them taken care of. 

I mean, if that's what it comes down to, do you think the attorney general could move forward with charges, possibly? 

STEPHENS:  Absolutely.  I spoke to General Foti about an hour-and-a-half ago.  And he was giving me some of the background, the widest scope of this investigation.  He said there were at least 100 deaths that he ruled as questionable right now, and they were being very aggressive with regard to try to get the facts together. 

The body that we found in the vicinity of St. Rita's, he advised me, had not been definitively been designated as a resident of that.  But Charlie Foti is the former sheriff of Orleans Parish.  I don't know if you know that.  He has been in law enforcement most of his political and professional life.  He's a good man.  He has a good team of investigators with him.

And I think he's going to do the right thing here.  You know, whether it was negligence or whether it was something more, maybe even a high degree of criminal activity, of felonious activity here, I know he'll get to the bottom of.  And I think this tragedy at St. Rita's and the ongoing investigation in multiple deaths at these medical facilities really is-paints a pretty iconic picture of what is going on with this storm. 

It's almost like we're living in a post-apocalyptic world in the New Orleans metropolitan area.  And it's difficult to describe to people the conditions we're facing here.  But this singular tragedy of St.  Rita's and the expanding investigation now certainly are representative of the horror and the grief and the pain this whole area is suffering. 

SCARBOROUGH:  And, Sheriff, as NBC's Donna Gregory reported at the top of our show, the horror may be taken to another level.  There are reports that the coroner is now investigating the possibility that some of these patients may have been killed.  Euthanasia may have been applied to them as so-called mercy killings, so they would die before the storm hit. 

Have you heard any rumors of that? 

STEPHENS:  As a matter of fact, there have been rumors.  I won't mention the specific location.  When it is-when and if it is disclosed, I'm sure it will come as a shock to most people.  But everyone is just mortified by these events.  But the pain that people feel with regards to the loss of these seniors has just-has spread throughout Louisiana.

And I know I have talked to several of the families who had loved ones in St. Rita's.  And the grief is just palpable.  They feel that they let them down in a way by having them in the institution.  And it's just, again, hard to understand, if we could take the care as parish sheriffs to evacuate our inmates, why couldn't these facilities take the care to evacuate their residents? 

SCARBOROUGH:  Sheriff, that is-that is probably the most damning question of the night.  Thank you so much for being with us.