The federal government threatened to strip a key financial lifeline at University of Chicago Medical Center in the wake of a medical error that contributed to the death last month of Chicago Sun-Times Chairman James Tyree.
Following an investigation into Tyree’s death, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which administers the Medicare program, said in a public notice this week that it determined “deficiencies…so serious they constitute an immediate threat to patient health and safety.”
The notice did not mention Tyree by name, but the Tribune has confirmed that the error described in the March 14 incident was linked to Tyree, who died two days later from an air embolism following the removal of a dialysis catheter while he was being treated for pneumonia.
The U. of C. said it received a notice today that the medical center’s “participation in the Medicare program remains intact” after submitting a “thorough plan of correction to demonstrate continued and sustained compliance with the Medicare conditions of participation.”
Most health facilities that face the loss of Medicare funding eventually address government inquiries before funding is stripped.
Nevertheless, the government’s move shows the increasing seriousness those who pay for health care place on the quality of medical care. The error at the U. of C. that contributed to Tyree’s death falls into a category known as a “never event,” which means it is a preventable situation.
Medicare and most private health insurance companies have escalated their focus on medical errors, refusing to pay for medical care that has been of poor quality, particularly when never events are involved, such as the one linked to Tyree’s death, or others such as a doctor leaving a sponge in a patient following heart surgery or when the wrong limb is amputated.
Just this week, the Obama administration announced a major initiative with insurers, hospitals and business leaders to reduce certain medical errors by 40 percent over the next three years. The Obama administration also seeks to cut readmissions to hospitals by 20 percent.
Tyree, who was 53 when he died, was also chairman and chief executive at Mesirow Financial and a noted Chicago philanthropist. He was diagnosed last year with stomach cancer and had been admitted to the U. of C. hospital with pneumonia. The Cook County medical examiner last month said his death was due to the procedure, but also listed pneumonia and metastatic cancer as secondary causes.
In a statement today to the Tribune, the Medicare program’s administrator said an investigation by the Illinois Department of Public Health and hospital accrediting agency the Joint Commission resulted in a “finding of immediate jeopardy due to the hospital’s failure to ensure that facility staff were adequately trained and showed competency in conducting such procedures.”
Such problems uncovered by government health officials at a hospital mean the facility’s payments from the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly — a primary revenue source for the U. of C. as well as almost any hospital — can be put at risk.
On March 25, the Chicago office of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services issued a notice of termination from the Medicare program for the hospital.
“Documentation, which was at the center of the investigation, has been improved and centralized,” the medical center said in today’s statement. “The investigations confirmed that all related personnel have appropriate training, experience, competency and credentialing.”