Secret data on hospital inspections may soon become public


The public could soon get a look at confidential reports about errors, mishaps and mix-ups in the nation’s hospitals that put patients’ health and safety at risk, under a groundbreaking proposal from federal health officials.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services wants to require that private healthcare accreditors publicly detail problems they find during inspections of hospitals and other medical facilities, as well as the steps being taken to fix them. Nearly nine in 10 hospitals are directly overseen by those accreditors, not the government.

There’s increasing concern among regulators that private accreditors aren’t picking up on serious problems at health facilities. Every year, CMS takes a sample of hospitals and other healthcare facilities accredited by private organizations and does its own inspections to validate the work of the groups. In a 2016 report, CMS noted that its review found that accrediting organizations often missed serious deficiencies found soon after by state inspectors.

In 2014, for instance, state officials examined 103 acute-care hospitals that had been reviewed by an accreditor in the past 60 days. The state officials found 41 serious deficiencies. Of those, 39 were missed by the accrediting organizations. This disparity “raises serious concerns regarding the [accrediting organizations’] ability to appropriately identify and cite health and safety deficiencies” during inspections, CMS officials wrote when they released draft regulations including the proposed change.

The move follows steps CMS took several years ago to post government inspection reports online for nursing homes and some hospitals. ProPublica has created a tool, Nursing Home Inspect, to allow people to more easily search through the nursing home deficiency reports; the Association of Health Care Journalists has done the same for hospital violations.

Those government inspection reports do not identify patients or medical staff, but they do offer a description – often detailed – of what went wrong. This includes medication errors, operations on the wrong patient or the wrong body part, and patient abuse.

But private accrediting organizations, the largest of which is The Joint Commission, have not followed suit, creating a patchwork of disclosure in which some inspections are public and others are not. CMS’ proposed rules are designed to fix this.

“We believe it is important to continue to lead the effort to make information regarding a healthcare facility’s compliance with health and safety requirements” publicly available, CMS officials wrote.

To qualify for federal funding, health facilities have to meet minimum requirements, known as Medicare conditions of participation. If a health facility has problems and doesn’t fix them, it stands to lose its Medicare funding.

Though accreditors have to be approved by the secretary of Health and Human Services, they rarely take punitive action against the organizations they oversee. Of the 4,018 hospitals listed on the The Joint Commission’s website, more than 99 percent have full accreditation and only seven are on track to lose their “gold seal of approval.”

The Joint Commission said it is reviewing the CMS proposal and couldn’t comment further. A smaller competitor, the Healthcare Facilities Accreditation Program, said it supports the goal of transparency but is studying what the change would mean in practice, both in terms of staffing and costs.

For its part, the American Hospital Association said it supports providing the public “useful information” about hospital quality, but has doubts that detailed inspection reports fit that description.

For years, accreditors have been accused of putting the interests of the facilities that pay them ahead of patient safety. In 2002, the Chicago Tribune reported how The Joint Commission gave its seal of approval to “medical centers riddled by life-threatening problems and underreporting of patient deaths due to infections and hospital errors.”

Comments on the proposal may be submitted from April 28 to June 13 through the CMS website.

NPR has the report.



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