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Hospital deaths inquiry widens

Robert Davis and Kevin Johnson USA Today

NEW ORLEANS – A state probe into reports that critically ill patients were left to die or were euthanized at a New Orleans hospital during the chaotic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has broadened to include an estimated 215 deaths at nursing homes and hospitals across the area, according to the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals.

The Louisiana Attorney General’s Office, which is overseeing the inquiry, has launched a “monumental investigation” that will examine what happened to patients and residents at 19 hospitals and nursing homes, spokeswoman Kris Wartelle said. The expansion of the probe – which now includes 21 percent of the 1,035 Louisiana deaths linked to the hurricane Aug. 29 – comes after a doctor at New Orleans’ Memorial Medical Center alleged that some of the 45 patients who died there might have been euthanized to end their suffering.

The doctor, Bryant King, told CNN last week that he had heard discussions among Memorial’s staff members about euthanizing some critically ill patients after power went out and conditions deteriorated in the hospital. King, who could not be reached for comment, told CNN that he saw one doctor with a handful of syringes. But King said he was not sure what was in them, and added that he did not see any Memorial staff member inject a patient with them.

It’s unclear whether state investigators are examining any other allegations of “mercy killings,” but the probe does include St. Rita’s nursing home in St. Bernard Parish, where 34 people died in the rising waters after Katrina hit.

Last month, Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti charged the operators of St. Rita’s nursing home, Mable and Salvador Mangano Sr., with 34 counts of negligent homicide for not evacuating residents. If convicted, the Manganos could face up to five years in prison for each count.

Wartelle said state investigators have launched “fact-finding” probes of all local health care facilities, and that some of those preliminary reviews have evolved into “full-blown” investigations. Besides Memorial and St. Rita’s, those under investigation include New Orleans’ Lindy Boggs Medical Center, where 19 people died in the days after Katrina hit.

Besides examining whether patients at Memorial were wrongly given fatal overdoses of painkillers such as morphine, authorities are investigating whether patients were neglected or otherwise mistreated as hospitals and nursing homes struggled to deal with rising waters and difficult-to-move patients and residents.

Tenet Healthcare, the parent company for Memorial and Lindy Boggs hospitals, has called its employees’ efforts “heroic” under difficult circumstances, and said it is cooperating with the state probe.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, which has overseen the recovery of bodies, said it has given the attorney general details on where bodies were found, spokesman Bob Johannessen said.

Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard said his staff has examined all but a half-dozen of the bodies from Memorial. He said analysts have found no obvious evidence of suspicious activity.

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