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Hospital employees subpoenaed over possible mercy killings

NEW ORLEANS—Louisiana's attorney general has subpoenaed more than 70 Memorial Hospital employees who have refused to talk to state authorities about possible mercy killings in the besieged hospital shortly after Hurricane Katrina.

Kris Wartelle, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Charles Foti Jr., said the office issued 73 subpoenas Tuesday to people who haven't voluntarily spoken to state officials since the investigation began several weeks ago.

State officials began investigating the mercy killings allegations after family members of patients at the New Orleans facility heard reports that doctors and nurses were killing patients who were too sick to survive the storm.

Meanwhile, state authorities are continuing to investigate other health care facilities in the New Orleans area but have been slowed by autopsy results. One nursing home operator from St. Bernard's Parish already has been charged with negligent homicide in the deaths of 34 residents.

Tenet, the Dallas-based health care provider that owns Memorial, sent a memo to employees advising them of their legal rights shortly after news of the investigation broke two weeks ago.

In an Oct. 14 memo obtained by Knight Ridder, Tenet's legal counsel advised employees that they had a right not to speak to the media or the government about what happened at the hospital. The memo, drafted by Audrey Andrews, assistant general counsel for Tenet, also asked that employees refrain from talking to the public about what happened at Memorial after the storm.

A spokesperson for Tenet has said that the hospital couldn't substantiate whether euthanasia was discussed in those hectic two days after the storm.

Authorities are investigating six hospitals and 13 nursing homes, Wartelle said, but not all of the investigations involve suspicious deaths. For example, the attorney general's office is investigating a facility that abandoned its patients, but no one there died, she said.

Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard said Thursday that autopsies of bodies at Memorial, Lindy Boggs Medical Center, Touro Infirmary and Methodist Hospital—where some family members have reported possible abuse or neglect—haven't been completed. Authorities haven't named the other two hospitals.

"We've done most of them, but we're still not finished," Minyard said. The results of the toxicology tests for those autopsies that have been completed, which would help determine whether the patients died of natural causes, aren't back yet.

Minyard said autopsies on all nursing home patients who died during the storm are also ongoing.

At least 45 bodies from Memorial have been autopsied, Minyard has said.

During Katrina, floodwaters shorted out the hospital's generators and batteries, shutting down critical equipment such as ventilators and dialysis machines. Temperatures in the hospital reportedly rose above 100.

A spokeswoman for Touro Infirmary, a hospital whose Katrina dead are being autopsied by the coroner, said the hospital hadn't been notified that deaths at the hospital during and after the hurricane were being investigated.

"We have no knowledge of being contacted by anyone about that," said Linda Osborne, the spokeswoman.

Officials with Methodist Hospital and Lindy Boggs Medical Center couldn't be located for comment.

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(Musgrave reports for the Lexington Herald Leader. Brian Brueggemann of the Kansas City Star contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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