By Nicholas Varchaver
December 11, 2016

Good morning.

Imagine being bamboozled into unintentionally checking yourself into a psychiatric hospital—one that is part of a profit-making chain that pushes its employees to admit as many patients as possible and that is under criminal investigation. That’s the deeply chilling scenario described in “Intake,” a BuzzFeed investigation of the chain of mental hospitals owned by Universal Health Services, a $9.6 billion giant and the largest private owner of psychiatric facilities in the country. (UHS’s operations treated 450,000 patients at more than 200 hospitals.) The accounts from employees are extremely disturbing:

When people called in to ask for help or inquire about services, internal documents and interviews show, UHS tracked what a former hospital administrator called each facility’s “conversion rate”: the percentage of callers who actually came in for psychiatric assessments, then the percentage of those people who became inpatients. “They keep track of our numbers as if we were car salesmen,” said Karen Ellis, a former counselor at Salt Lake Behavioral.

“The goal when you’re on the phone with someone is to always get them into the facility within 24 hours,” said a former admissions employee who worked at three UHS facilities in Texas. “And the reason for getting them into the facility is that once they stepped foot in, they are behind locked doors.”

UHS disputes the claims in the article, but the evidence is damning. It includes, for example, a first-hand account of a mildly depressed woman who sought counseling—only to find herself locked into a psychiatric facility and prevented from leaving. Even an industry spokesperson, defending UHS, ends up sounding scary when she endorses the view that the hospital shouldn’t let a person leave until it ascertains they are safe: “This may involve restricting their ability to leave the facility.” Every state has laws allowing involuntary commitment, of course, but this article makes it clear that UHS is particularly prone to citing the risk that the patient might kill themselves. “By 2013,” the article notes, “the code for suicidal ideation appeared in more than half of all of the Medicare claims submitted by UHS hospitals. This is four and a half times the rate for all non-UHS psychiatric hospitals.”

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