A group of cardiac doctors in Florida claim that the state is putting children with cardiac problems at severe risk because of a change in policy – a change that just happened to take place soon after Tenet Healthcare contributed more than $200,000 to Florida Republicans.
In June, CNN published a report that received national attention. The investigation revealed that a children’s heart surgery program at a Tenet-owned Florida hospital had failed to live up to state quality standards.
Less than two months later, instead of directing the hospital to fix things, the state simply decided to get rid of those standards of care.
And many doctors and members of the media believe that the decision to repeal those standards was made right after the giant hospital chain made significant political contributions to Republican Governor Rick Scott and his party.
Louis St. Petery, a pediatric cardiologist in Tallahassee, said that, “The whole situation is outrageous. It’s just outrageous.”
Cardiac physicians begged Florida to maintain the hospital standards. They argued that the quality standards of care have been in place since the ‘70s, have saved children’s lives and led other states to enact similar standards.
Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambineri responded to the controversy by stating that, “Our number one priority is the health of all Floridians, especially children.” However, she added that, “We fully support best practices and high standards of care at Florida’s hospitals. As an executive branch agency, the department’s authority is limited to those functions statutorily delegated by the Legislature.” Meaning that their hands were tied and were required to repeal the standards of care.
Pediatric heart specialists appointed by the state were furious. At a hearing, Dr. Jeffrey Jacobs emphasized that the standards “are necessary to protect the vulnerable children with heart disease. [Repealing the standards] is the failure of an entire team and system.”
Jacobs recommended the hospital cease and desist from performing heart surgery on infants younger than 6 months. Legally, the hospital could simply ignore Jacobs’ recommendation – and it did so. Meanwhile, the state did not intervene to help and babies continued to die at the hospital.
Finally, to the doctors’ relief, the hospital’s CEO resigned and it closed its pediatric heart surgery program. Yet, Florida announced it still planned to repeal hospital standards of care for children’s heart surgery.
Doctors outside the state were stunned. Dr. Peter Pronovost opined that, “I can’t think of anywhere else in the country where you have safety standards and someone doesn’t like them, so you just have it repealed. These standards have been in use for more than 30 years, and they’re widely acknowledged to ensure safety – why would you repeal them? If the state really felt it didn’t have the legislative authority to have the standards, why wouldn’t they go out and get that authority?”
Florida pediatric heart doctors in Florida say they believe the order to eliminate the standards of care came directly from Governor Scott’s office – who wanted to keep a major political donor (i.e., Tenet Healthcare) happy.
Unfortunately, in December, Florida Administrative Law Judge John Van Laningham ruled in the state’s favor, holding that health care professionals take “pride” in their jobs and that many “derive personal satisfaction from doing a job well.” Therefore, according to his reasoning, removing the government-imposed standards would not affect quality of care.
Essentially, the judge ruled that doctors will provide the same level of care simply because “they want to” – and not because they are forced to.
Now, the cardiac doctors are considering whether to appeal the judge’s seemingly absurd decision. Meanwhile, they said they are simply relieved that the hospital at issue is no longer operating on children’s hearts.