Medicare: Data About Hospital Medical Errors Not ‘Relevant’ to Patients

Scartelli Olszewski P.C.

Everyone wants to be treated at a “good hospital.”Needless to say, though, not all hospitals are “good hospitals.” Some are better than others. How can we tell the difference? It’s not as easy as it used to be, and the federal agency in the best position to help us make that determination isn’t making it any easier. Until the summer of 2013, one of the most thorough and reliable sources of information on hospital performance was the “Hospital Compare” website operated by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS). With the Hospital Compare site, prospective patients and their loved ones could evaluate the hospital facilities in their region on the basis of attributes such as emergency room waiting time, patient satisfaction survey responses, and the rates of unplanned readmission for conditions such as heart failure. An additional measure that Hospital Compare visitors could use to evaluate their local facilities was their rate of preventable hospital-acquired conditions, or HACs. A HAC is a fancy name for a medical problem that a patient suffers as a direct result of their visit to that hospital. A HAC is a medical error. A screw-up. In many ways, the rate of HACs that are on a hospital’s record is arguably the most important criterion that many of us would use for deciding whether a particular hospital is a “good hospital.” Bad hospitals make a lot of mistakes. Good hospitals don’t. Seems reasonable, right? Unfortunately, the public can’t see that information anymore. The Hospital Compare site still exists, but the CMS inexplicably removed information about eight important medical errors from the results that are shown to the public. If your neighborhood hospital transfused a patient with the wrong blood type, gave someone the wrong medication, or left a piece of gauze in a patient’s abdomen during a medical procedure, those incidents used to show up on Hospital Compare. But not anymore. These medical errors occur thousands of times each year, but after summer 2013, the CMS released that data only on an obscure spreadsheet that was used mostly by researchers. A year later, they pulled the HAC statistics from that spreadsheet, too. When confronted by USA Today about the change, the CMS put on a virtuoso display of bureaucratic doublespeak. The CMS told USA Today that the changes were intended to make its data “more comprehensive and most relevant to consumers.”You read that correctly. These medical errors cause an estimated 440,000 patient deaths every year, but the CMS claims that HAC statistics are not “relevant to consumers.” The CMS also wants you to believe that less information is actually more information. Somewhere, “1984” author George Orwell is laughing at us. In the wake of the USA Today report, the CMS said it would restore the HAC statistics to the public spreadsheet. They will not, however, bring them back to Hospital Compare. Hospitals have a strong financial incentive to keep their HAC numbers low. One provision of the Affordable Care Act (informally and widely known as “ObamaCare”) stipulates that hospitals in the worst 25 percent of HAC statistics will lose reimbursement from Medicare. The medical malpractice attorneys at Scartelli Olszewski, P.C. believe that any government statistics significant enough to penalize a hospital financially are statistics you should be allowed to see. We join with the American Association for Justice in calling for improved transparency in matters of patient safety. Visit their site to send a message to your representatives in Congress today.