BROOKLYN HEIGHTS — A new lawsuit has been filed against the North Jersey health facility that had to warn nearly 4,000 of its patients that they may have contracted HIV or hepatitis due to unsanitary conditions at the facility. HealthPlus, which operates the facility, says that it has taken proper action regarding personnel and hygiene, but the number of patients saying that the health care provider is continuing to mismanage their situation is growing.
"I couldn't even enjoy my holiday," said Kristin Debenedictis. "And I'm still living in fear. Every day, constant fear. Nobody will give me any answers."
Debenedictis is one of 3,778 patients who'd been treated at the HealthPlus Surgery Center in Saddle Brook, New Jersey between January and September of 2018. Within days of Christmas, each of them was supposed to have received a certified letter warning them that the facility's poor hygiene during the first eight and-a-half months of the year had subjected them to the blood-borne diseases. It had also instructed them to get tested for the illnesses, free of charge.
However, some patients now say, the notification was mishandled.
"Not only did I get my [certified] letter, I got someone else's letter, with her name and address on it," said patient Robert Stridiron, who'd had knee surgery at the facility.
"They messed up again," he told PIX11 News. "That's a federal HIPA law violation."
Stridiron, who’s also an emergency medical technician, was referring to patient privacy laws. In full disclosure, Stridiron is also a part-time news videographer, who occasionally provides breaking news video to PIX11 News.
He's also among at least six patients who sought the services of personal injury attorney Sanford Rubenstein regarding how the holiday-time notification affected them. Some of the plaintiffs, including Debenedictis, said, in interviews with PIX11 News, as well as at a news conference here, that they still have not been notified whether or not they tested positive for the illnesses, even though their blood tests happened at least a week ago.
"It's very upsetting," Debenedictis said. "I just want answers."
What patients do know is that the New Jersey Department of Health inspected the facility on Sept. 7 and found a variety of unsanitary conditions, including surgical tools with “brown, rust-like stains” on them, and a stretcher with a blood-stained sheet, that was improperly disinfected, even after an inspector called for it to be sanitized, according to a department of health report.
Also, by HealthPlus's own admission, "sterilization and medication dispensing were not operating consistent with standard procedure" at the facility.
It also said, in a statement from its attorney, Mark Manigan, that "multi-dose medicines were improperly dispensed and lapses in sterilization procedures occurred, primarily concerning orthopedic instruments and surgical trays."
HealthPlus also pointed out that a nursing supervisor at the facility resigned the day before it was inspected, and that it dismissed two other workers responsible for hygiene. It also shut down the facility for two weeks in September for a thorough sterilization, it said, and opened the facility for a media tour last weekend to show that conditions met state standards.
That was inadequate for the patients filing suit.
"There is liability from this facility for these victims," said Rubenstein, their attorney.
The HealthPlus facility where the unhealthy conditions were present is owned by businessman Yan Moshe. He also owns Hudson Regional Hospital in Secaucus, New Jersey, which was listed in letters to patients as a testing center for them to find out if they had contracted the diseases.
Rubenstein and his plaintiffs called that a conflict of interest, which they find disturbing.
"I just want justice," said patient Steven Tapia, in an interview with PIX11 News.
In response to the new legal action, Manigan, HealthPlus's attorney, said, "I have no comment on the lawsuit."
He also pointed out that HealthPlus has posted information related to the state department of health investigation and corrective activity on its website.
"Since reopening on September 27, 2018, HealthPlus is fully compliant and will provide additional updates as appropriate," Manigan said.
A separate, class action lawsuit was filed against HealthPlus in Bergen County, New Jersey, last week.