Lisa Zenzen Baker, 1961-2003


Friday, November 11, 2005

State laws weak on medical errors

Obviously, what apparently happened to Lisa that night in Samarian Hospital is a medical story. But it is also a political issue - the fact that state laws governing medical institutions are so weak that many instances of neglect bring little or no penalty.

In an Associated Press story that ran in many newspapers in late May, state Health Commissioner Antonia Novello responded to people who had expressed surprise that the maximum fine for a violation is $2,000 - even if that violation resulted in a patient's death.

The story said Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester had been cited for 10 serious violations in a case in which a patient received a liver incompatible with the patient’s blood type and died, but nevertheless, the maximum fine her department could impose was $20,000.

In another case, Manhattan Eye, Ear and Throat Hospital also was fined just $20,000 for a series of violations that occurred during cosmetic surgery in which two patients died.

The story said Novello had spoken to members of a state Assembly panel, suggesting that the penalties - unchanged since 1990 - be increased.

“Find a way by which there’s a proportionate way of fining a hospital or health care facility when death is involved,” she was quoted as saying.

Consumer advocates have called the current state penalties “junk change” for many hospitals, and also want the fines increased. But the operators of most medical facilities clearly do not agree. The same AP story quotes a spokeswoman for The Healthcare Association of New York State as claiming that there is “no known connection between higher fines and quality of care.”

The association represents more than 550 hospitals and other health care facilities in New York

Given the huge number of people reported to be injured and killed by medical errors, increasing the penalties seems a reasonable proposition. But also given the huge donations made by the health care industry to politicians, it does not seem likely to happen.

That's what has to be brought to the attention of the public. If Lisa's untimely death leads to even a small change, it will at least bring something positive out of this otherwise senseless tragedy.