State fines St. Agnes for errors in lab tests
Part of the $447,500 will be used to improve procedures at the hospital. Mistakes led to three fatal overdoses.
By Susan FitzGerald
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
The state yesterday fined St. Agnes Medical Center nearly a half-million dollars for laboratory testing errors over the summer that resulted in the deaths of three patients and put hundreds of others at risk.
Pennsylvania Department of Health officials said the $447,500 penalty was the largest they ever levied against a hospital - but, in an unusual move, the state will allow St. Agnes to divert a portion of the fine to pay for improved oversight and monitoring of its laboratory and pharmacy services, conduct staff training, and implement community-health initiatives in surrounding South Philadelphia.
Health Secretary Robert S. Zimmerman said the hefty size of the fine spoke to the seriousness of the errors, which involved the incorrect calculation of more than 840 blood-clotting test reports over a 52-day period. The errors led to some overdoses of a powerful anti-clotting drug, Coumadin.
Zimmerman said the alternative payment offer was appropriate because the hospital was forthcoming in reporting the mistake to the state and the affected patients, and cooperated fully with investigators.
"I don't see this as letting them off the hook at all," Zimmerman said. St. Agnes, he said, was being held accountable for its mistakes regardless of "whether the money comes to us or is put into improving services for the community."
Officials at the hospital said in a prepared statement yesterday that they were interested in pursuing the alternative-payment option but might nevertheless appeal the fine.
"Given our full cooperation with the state and other regulatory bodies with regard to this event, and recognizing that we voluntarily and publicly acknowledged the incident upon its discovery, the magnitude of this fine is quite disappointing," said Sister Marge Sullivan, St. Agnes' president and chief executive officer.
Sister Marge said the fine "will be very significant to a community hospital such as St. Agnes Medical Center in in an era of limited resources."
St. Agnes has 30 days to appeal the fine and 10 days to submit to the state a plan on how it would use part of the payment to enhance the quality of its services.
The state Health Department's investigation found that from June 4 to July 25, the hospital's lab incorrectly reported results on a blood-clotting test called Prothrombin Time. The test measures the blood's ability to clot and is generally used to determine the appropriate dose of Coumadin, the brand name for the generic blood-thinning drug warfarin.
According to the Philadelphia Medical Examiner's Office, three patients died from brain hemorrhages because they were given the wrong doses of Coumadin, which can cause serious internal bleeding if too much is taken.
The medical examiner is still investigating a fourth death, a spokesman said yesterday, but so far there is no evidence that it was caused by too much Coumadin.
The state Health Department investigation found that St. Agnes lab workers plugged a wrong number into a formula used to standardize the results so that they are comparable from lab to lab. The St. Agnes workers used the number for a new testing agent they had ordered when, in fact, the same testing agent had been delivered to the lab and was being used in the test.
Routine checks that would have discovered the error were not done, officials said.
The state allowed the hospital to resume doing the test last month after procedural changes were made.
Andrew Wigglesworth, president of the Delaware Valley Healthcare Council, a trade group, said yesterday that he feared the unprecedented size of the state's fine might dissuade other health providers from coming forward to report potential problems.
"This obviously was a tragic set of circumstances for those patients who were injured," Wigglesworth said. But he said the fine seemed excessive given that St. Agnes is a small community hospital and that its administrators had taken the right steps in reporting the problem and fixing it.
St. Agnes, a 152-bed facility on South Broad Street, is part of the Catholic Health East network. According to the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, the hospital lost money on operations in the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2000, with patient revenues of $57 million and total expenses of $61 million.
Zimmerman said St. Agnes' financial picture was not a factor in setting the fine or offering the alternative payment plan.
"We had mortality and morbidity and, repeatedly, procedures that were not followed," Zimmerman said, explaining the rationale for the amount. On the other hand, he said, "St. Agnes is a valuable part of that community and we want to reinforce that."
Susan FitzGerald's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org