August 1, 1996 in Nation/World

Eastern State Chief Resigns Under Fire Resignation Follows Report On Abuse Of Privileges

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Under fire for misuse of state money and for poor patient care, the chief executive officer of Eastern State Hospital resigned Wednesday.

Steven Covington made the announcement at a staff meeting at the Medical Lake psychiatric hospital. His last day will be Aug. 6.

Covington’s resignation follows an investigation by the state auditor’s office that found he had abused state telephone privileges, used state vehicles for his personal use and got a sweetheart deal on a state-owned house.

His departure also comes on the heels of a recent federal inspection that reached a scathing conclusion: Eastern State Hospital is ignoring many patients’ medical and therapeutic needs.

The annual audit puts in jeopardy $21 million in federal money - two-thirds of the hospital’s budget.

Covington resigned voluntarily, said Jann Hoppler, acting director of the state Department of Social and Health Services’ mental health division in Olympia.

“The job Steven has done over nearly two years has been a difficult one. We appreciate the work he’s done,” Hoppler said.

Covington left the hospital early Wednesday, refusing several requests for an interview.

“I thank each of you for all the hard work you’ve done during the past two years. I know these have been difficult times,” Covington said in a memo addressed to the staff.

But most nurses and doctors were “very happy” after Covington’s announcement, said one worker who asked not to be identified.

“The mood was relief, excitement and ‘let’s move on to solve our problems,”’ the worker said.

Pat Terry, former superintendent of Western State Hospital, will be named acting director, Hoppler said.

Terry, a special assistant to Hoppler, recently was sent to Eastern State to remedy the problems that threaten the hospital’s future.

Terry is working with the federal Health Care Financing Administration on a top-to-bottom review of hospital plans to correct nursing shortages, patient-care problems and safety concerns.

Federal inspectors also called for a thorough performance review of Covington. They noted DSHS hadn’t evaluated him, even though he arrived in August 1994 and is supposed to receive annual evaluations.

Covington came to the Medical Lake hospital with orders to downsize it after the state Legislature cut its budget nearly 10 percent. He cut the budget from $35 million to $32 million.

The hospital workers union fought his downsizing plan, warning it cut too many rank-and-file staff and would make the worker-patient ratio dangerously low.

Staff tensions escalated after a highly placed hospital whistleblower accused Covington of misusing state money and other indiscretions.

Shirley Maike, Covington’s former top assistant, said he mixed personal and state business.

Covington denied the charges. But state Auditor Brian Sonntag upheld most of them in a report obtained by The Spokesman-Review in June.

Covington billed state taxpayers for at least 98 personal, out-of-state telephone calls and got a sweetheart deal on a large house he rents from the state for $91 a month, the auditor’s report said.

Most of the 98 calls were made to Kentucky and Ohio, where Covington previously lived and worked.

Sonntag told the newspaper it was the worst abuse of state telephone privileges he’d seen - especially since Covington denied making the calls. He praised Maike for pointing out the abuses.

Sonntag said the state either must charge Covington the full market rental price for the house or consider it a gift and tax it as such.

He’s paid $91.08 a month for the 10-room, 4,000-square-foot brick home on the hospital grounds. It would rent for about $950 a month on the open market, according to the report.

DSHS needs to strengthen its fiscal oversight at Eastern State whether Covington’s working there or not, Sonntag said Wednesday.

In addition, DSHS should make Covington pay back the money, Sonntag said.

“We have no enforcement authority. It’s up to them whether he’s asked to pay back the money. We are the watchdog for the public, and we’d be remiss if we didn’t recommend that they make the account whole,” Sonntag said.

DSHS is still reviewing the auditors’ findings and hasn’t decided whether to ask Covington to pay back the money, Hoppler said.

As the controversy unfolded this year, Covington blamed the probe on hospital staff irked at his efforts to cut costs, beds and staff.

But the probe of Covington’s management revealed weak financial oversight.

“Our goal is to prevent this from happening again,” Sonntag said. “In the future, they should have better controls in place.”

, DataTimes

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