State and federal investigators are looking into infant deaths at St. Mary's Medical Center in West Palm Beach. The babies died following heart surgery.
CNN was the first media outlet to call attention to the deaths. By CNN's count, nine infants have died in the nearly four years since the hospital began its pediatric cardiovascular program. The network reported that the death rate for infant cardiac surgery there is three times higher than the national average.
St. Mary's disputes those findings, and so does the state. But two things are certain: First, pediatric cardiologists associated with Children's Medical Services, a program housed within the Department of Health, have expressed their concerns about St. Mary's. Second, it turns out the state doesn’t seem to be able to do much about it.
We talked with Margie Menzel of the News Service of Florida, who’s been digging into what the state can legally do to intervene.
What do these doctors say is wrong with the program?
The main thing they say is that the hospital isn’t performing enough of these very specialized, complex heart surgeries on infants to get really good at it. Most respected programs have at least 100 cases a year where they operate; St. Mary’s has a fraction of that. So the doctors affiliated with Children's Medical Services last year told the Department of Health they didn’t think St. Mary's should be operating on infants under six months old.
Children's Medical Services is designed to serve children and their families who have severe and chronic illnesses. It’s the Department of Health that oversees the standard of care, but the department does not have the legal authority to make the hospital accept site visits or peer reviews from pediatric cardiologists.
The Agency for Healthcare Administration (AHCA) very much disagrees with CNN’s reporting. What is the agency saying?
They accuse CNN of sensationalized reporting that failed to include information AHCA had provided about its dealings with St. Mary’s. AHCA Secretary Liz Dudek said in statement that AHCA had conducted five site visits at St. Mary's over the last six months and that they would hold the hospital accountable to its patients.
But can the state do anything about the issues at St. Mary’s?
Well, they would have to change the law. The pediatric cardiologists who visited St. Mary's last year – what they would like to see is for the state to return to having in state law that you conduct site visits and peer reviews of programs that are serving Florida children. So in April 2014, the doctors gave the St. Mary’s program a negative review. St. Mary’s says it has made some changes based on that information. But because there’s no legal authority that the state has to make those changes binding, the doctors say going forward, they’d like the law changed.