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The institute is under fire by current and former patients and is the target of criminal charges and civil complaints.

Profits come at deadly price

Brain-injured allege abuse at Florida facility

Bloomberg News photos
Reginald Hicks, seen in an undated photo, died last year because of mistreatment at the Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation, his daughter says.

Soon after Peter Price arrived at the Florida Institute for Neurologic Rehabilitation to recover from a brain injury, he pleaded for a rescue.

“Jess, they beat me up,” Price told his sister, Jessica Alopaeus, in May 2009. “You have to get me out of here.”

Staffers at the center held him down and punched him in the face and groin, Price said. When Alopaeus’s efforts to transfer him stalled, Price took desperate steps.

He swallowed five fish hooks and 22 AA batteries he’d picked up during a patient outing at Walmart. After emergency surgery to remove the objects, he was allowed to transfer to another facility.

Residents at the Florida Institute have often been abused, neglected and confined, according to 20 current and former patients and their family members, criminal charges, civil complaints and advocates for the disabled.

These sources and more than 2,000 pages of court and medical records, police reports, state investigations and autopsies contain an untold history of violence and death at the institute known as FINR, located amid cattle ranches and citrus groves in Hardee County, 50 miles southeast of Tampa.

Patients’ families or state agencies have alleged abuse or care lapses in at least five residents’ deaths since 1998, two of them in the past 18 months. Three former employees face criminal charges of abusing FINR patients.

The complaints underscore the problems that 5.3 million brain-injured Americans have finding adequate care. Their numbers are growing, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as better emergency medicine and vehicle safety mean that fewer die from traffic accidents or other causes of traumatic brain injuries.

The long-term ills include memory loss, physical handicaps and the inability to control violent anger or sexual aggression.

Operated for profit since 1992, FINR has become one of the largest brain-injury centers in the country, with 196 beds. Its marketing is focused on the relative few who can pay bills that reach $1,850 a day. That includes those injured on jobs with generous workers’ compensation benefits and car-crash victims in Michigan – which mandates unlimited lifetime benefits for automobile injury coverage.

Those who have clashed with the company over the treatment of patients say its efforts to keep costs down and extend the duration of stays take priority over care.

“All people are to them is a monetary gain,” said Jana Thorpe, a professional guardian who removed one of her wards from the company’s care in 2008.

FINR executives declined to comment. The company has said previously that it vends “extremely high quality care to very difficult clients” aimed at returning them to their homes, doesn’t use seclusion and has “zero tolerance” for resident abuse.

Last December, Reginald Hicks was taken to the cafeteria by a FINR employee and given solid food that lodged in his lungs and killed him, according to his daughter, Heather Hicks.

Her father, a former mortgage-workout specialist injured in a car accident, couldn’t swallow and had a care plan that called for tube feeding, she said. Autopsy findings cited aspiration of food and pneumonia as causes of death.

Ex-residents of FINR said they were frequently “taken down” or knocked to the floor and restrained by staff, in a routine often accompanied by beatings. Blue mats sometimes used for the takedowns are ubiquitous at FINR, patients and visitors say.

As for Price, he was taken down more than 20 times and confined to his cabin at FINR for weeks at a time, he said in an interview. Residents are kept in as part of “therapeutic cabin based programming,” used to protect them from hurting themselves or others, the company has said.

Price now lives in an apartment run by a different center in Florida, where he is monitored but able to leave his apartment most days.

He said he goes on fishing trips, eats out, sees movies, and has never been taken down at his new home.