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    Audit: Some hospitals failed to report medical mistakes

    Officials say the danger from non-reporting was serious enough to warrant stiffer penalties for some hospitals.

    By ALISA ULFERTS

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 17, 2001


    TALLAHASSEE -- Nearly one in seven hospitals did not report serious medical mistakes to the state last year as required, according to a recent state audit.

    State officials say the danger to patients from lack of reporting was serious enough to warrant stiffer penalties for those hospitals that fail to own up.

    In particular, auditors urged state lawmakers to repeal the exemption that shields so-called hospital "adverse incident" reports from Florida's public records law for those hospitals that don't report their mishaps.

    "As long as hospitals follow the law, the records will be protected; if they choose not to follow the law, the protection will not apply," auditors wrote earlier this month.

    The state report comes out the same month that state lawmakers tried -- and failed -- to exempt individual doctors' mistakes from the public records law.

    Legislators and lobbyists argued that doctors would be more likely to report mistakes they made in their offices, such as wrong-site surgery or injuries resulting in death, brain or spinal damage, if they had the same public records exemption as hospitals.

    Doctors' information, including professional background and medical mistakes, is posted on the Department of Health's Internet site at www.doh.state.fl.us.

    Now state auditors are suggesting that hospitals would be more likely to report their mistakes if the records are public -- at least for the delinquent hospitals.

    It's a position that disturbs Daytona Beach attorney Jonathan Kaney.

    "An exemption is created out of public necessity," said Kaney, a board member of the First Amendment Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes open government and records.

    The state either needs that exemption or it doesn't, and it shouldn't use the possible repeal of the public records exemption to punish a hospital for not following the law, Kaney said.

    "The argument that the exemption will produce compliance is inaccurate," Kaney said.

    State auditors further said that because not all hospitals report problems, the number of actual patients who may have been harmed is unknown.

    "The risk to consumers from practitioners who have made serious, harmful medical mistakes is greater than available data appear to indicate," state auditors wrote.

    Officials with the Florida Hospital Association, the hospital industry's trade group, had not seen the report and declined to comment.

    A spokesman for the Agency for Health Care Administration, which regulates hospitals and other health care facilities, said his agency agrees with most of the points raised in the audit.

    The Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability completed the audit.

    In the report, auditors credited AHCA for speeding up its response time to complaints against health care facilities, but added that it could do more to take action against facilities that post a threat to patients.

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