Hospital Heists: No state law protecting Lowcountry patients from theft

In the same place promising to provide patients with the utmost care, are allegations of broken trust among the most vulnerable.
Published: Oct. 19, 2023 at 5:50 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 19, 2023 at 10:39 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - In the same place promising to provide patients with the utmost care are allegations of broken trust among the most vulnerable.

“This needs to change. It needs to change now,” Mary Becker, who lost her husband, Robert, at Trident Medical Center in North Charleston in April 2020, says.

“Losing someone you love is hard enough,” Becker says, “but to know someone robbed [my husband] as he lay there dying. It breaks my heart.”

Live 5 Investigates first brought this issue to attention in September. Tim Holt had to bury his father without his wedding ring and his wife’s wedding ring, which he wore around his neck. Both items Holt alleges went missing at Trident Medical Center and never turned up after his father died.

In Becker’s case, she says the vanished items are not nearly as sentimental as Holt’s, but the issues she is left with will haunt her for the rest of her life.

Soon after Robert was taken to Trident, Becker says his down vest with a phone charger in it went missing, and his cell phone consequently died.

“It was strange. He always had his cell phone. He was a tech guy,” Becker says.

COVID-19 cases had just started ramping up amid the global pandemic, and Becker says Robert’s cellphone was the easiest way to reach him since she couldn’t freely go to the hospital. Becker says she didn’t panic, though, because he could use the hospital room phone as a backup.

But in the last week of Robert’s life, Becker says her husband’s cell phone, which contained valuable information like credit cards, vanished entirely, and she never got it back.

“Certainly, you can’t want to do this to people who are dying. You want people to go into your hospital, be sick and dying, and be robbed?” Becker says.

Becker says in the hours and days after her husband’s death, she started getting letters in the mail saying someone was trying to steal his information.

On April 29, the day Robert died due to complications from Polycystic Kidney Disease, Becker got a letter in the mail saying her credit cards had been placed on a “temporary protective hold” due to suspicious activity.

On May 7, she received another letter saying someone was trying to change the pin on Robert’s phone, which she still never got back.

“He’s been dead since the 29th, this is dated May 7th. So, clearly, it wasn’t him who changed the pin,” Becker says.

Becker’s story is in addition to more than 75 reported thefts at Trident since January 2018, according to reports from North Charleston Police. That’s just a fraction of the more than 650 reported thefts at Trident, Roper St. Francis’ downtown hospital and both of the Medical University of South Carolina’s downtown locations combined.

Data from the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety says nearly 6% of patients experienced theft in 2022, a number those advocating for stricter patient belongings policies say is far too high. Among the items reported stolen are jewelry, wallets and phones.

Becker says Trident could not track down her husband’s missing belongings, despite the letters she received saying somebody had them in their possession.

While Trident and other Lowcountry hospitals claim to have policies protecting patients from theft, the hundreds of theft reports point to those policies not always working. Live 5 News discovered there is also no state law regulating these policies.

It’s an issue that wasn’t on some lawmakers’ radar prior to Live 5′s reporting.

“No, it has not [been brought to my attention], and I was glad when you reached out to me,” says Representative Sylleste Davis, Chair of the House 3M Committee (Military, Medical and Municipal Affairs).

“I think this is something the medical community is more than willing to sit down and discuss,” Davis says.

There is currently no South Carolina law protecting everyday patients from theft, only mental health patients. Section 44-22-120 states, “Personal property of a patient brought into the hospital and placed in storage by the hospital must be inventoried. Receipts must be given to the patient and at least one other interested person.”

Davis says she thinks this is something that could be applied to all patients, especially those who are dying and slowly slipping out of reality.

“I know that the members of my committee would be happy to work on that, as well,” Davis says.

Schipp Ames, Vice President of Strategic Marketing and Communications at the South Carolina Hospital Association, says the issue of thefts in hospitals has previously been discussed in the organization, but it is not a top priority.

“A lot of our issues lately have been a lot related to how our business works and it’s not as much of these operational challenges, but this is certainly something that seems like it could be solved with internal policies at hospitals,” Ames says.

As for the families who have already been impacted by allegations of thefts, they say the damage has already been done.

“I don’t know if I’d want to do business with any company or institution that was forced to do the right thing,” Becker says. “I can’t imagine a business wouldn’t comply with this without us having to make a law, but if that’s the only way to protect patients and their families, then we need a law. I don’t know if we have any other choice.”

Officials with Trident Medical Center declined to go on camera several times and refused to provide their patient belongings policies. Trident Medical Center Spokesman Rod Whiting provided a statement previously given to Live 5 News that states:

We know being admitted to the hospital can be stressful. That’s why patients are given the opportunity to store their belongings in a secure location. If they choose against that, they’re given storage options that help them keep their items with them. In the rare instance that something valuable is misplaced, we review the patient’s travel through the hospital and can review security footage.

To read more about other hospital belongings policies, click here.