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Florida officials open investigation of Tampa stroke victim's care at jail

TAMPA — The Florida Department of Health has launched an investigation into the medical care received by Allen Daniel Hicks Sr., a Tampa man who suffered a fatal stroke that went untreated for 36 hours as he languished in the Hillsborough County jail system.

The inquiry appears to be focused on employees of Armor Correctional Health Services Inc., the Miami-based private contractor that manages Hillsborough prisoners' health care, according to lawyers who have been in touch with the Department of Health.

Hicks, 51, was arrested in May 2012 after veering off Interstate 275 in Tampa. He was booked into jail without a medical screening, rambling incoherently and dragging his left leg.

More than a full day passed — during much of which Hicks lay on the floor of his cell or tried to crawl using only his right limbs — before he was taken to Tampa General Hospital and immediately diagnosed with a severe ischemic stroke. He slipped into a coma and died months later.

It is unclear what prompted state officials to open a review of Hicks' case almost a year after his death. However, a letter announcing the investigation was sent to the attorney for Hicks' estate on July 16, nine days after the Tampa Bay Times published a story detailing mistakes made by Armor employees and sheriff's deputies in their handling of Hicks.

Department of Health spokeswoman Erica Chicola declined to comment on Hicks' case and said she could neither confirm nor deny any ongoing investigations. But attorneys for Hicks' heirs and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said they had been contacted by a medical quality assurance investigator.

"They sent us a letter, and I talked to their investigator," said Thea Clark, deputy chief legal counsel for the Sheriff's Office. "I told her the Sheriff's Office is willing to cooperate fully."

Armor spokeswoman Yeleny Suarez said Armor had learned of the inquiry from the Sheriff's Office but had not yet been contacted directly by the Department of Health. She said the company "will cooperate fully with ongoing investigations."

The inquiry is notable in light of Armor's political connections. The company's former director of clinical operations, Dr. Ana M. Viamonte Ros, served as Florida's surgeon general — overseeing the Department of Health — from 2007 to 2011.

Armor now provides medical care at 13 county jails and four Department of Corrections facilities in Florida, and has contracts in four other states, according to the company's website. In Hillsborough, the firm is paid more than $20 million per year for its services.

The Department of Health can take action to suspend or revoke the medical licenses of individuals, but does not have power to regulate many businesses and institutions.

Carol Gammans, a Department of Health investigator, wrote to the lawyer for Hicks' estate that "the Department of Health is reviewing the health care provided to Allen Daniel Hicks Sr.," but did not offer specifics about the inquiry. The letter was written to request access to Hicks' medical records.

Clark said jail officials have provided their records to the state, including jail surveillance video and internal memos that were highly critical of the care provided by Armor. The Sheriff's Office paid Hicks' heirs $200,000 in a wrongful-death settlement earlier this year, in addition to $800,000 paid by Armor.

Clark said she does not expect any scrutiny of jail deputies. But Armor employees could provide plenty of material for regulators. An internal Sheriff's Office review of Hicks' case last year identified by name at least 10 Armor nurses and doctors who had a hand in Hicks' care.

An internal memo by Clark earlier this year stated that a Tampa General Hospital neurosurgeon who treated Hicks "was extremely critical of the medical care provided by Armor" to Hicks during his stay at the Orient Road and Falkenburg Road jails. And an internal report by sheriff's Col. James Previtera found further evidence of questionable actions by Armor employees.

Previtera said that Armor Health Services administrator Lewis Hays "offered misleading information as to the existence" of notes on Hicks' care and that Hays and his assistant, Andy Sluka, "engaged in conduct that appeared to be intended to intimidate and coerce" a nurse who recognized Hicks' stroke symptoms. Previtera ultimately revoked Hays' and Sluka's security clearances, removing their ability to work in the jail.

Previtera's review also noted that a nursing supervisor, Petrina Rodriguez, denied getting a call from a nurse about Hicks' condition even though "there is ample evidence to support (that) the call to the clinic was made." A fourth Armor employee, Vera Reaves, "failed to properly assess Hicks' medical condition," Previtera found.

Hays and Sluka could not be reached for comment. Reaves and the woman who answered Rodriguez's phone declined to comment. All four hold Florida nursing licenses with no disciplinary history, according to state records.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3337. Follow him on Twitter @petejamison.

Florida officials open investigation of Tampa stroke victim's care at jail 07/26/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 26, 2013 10:58pm]
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