Yesterday’s big news
gets no mention today
By David Baker
Posted September 15, 2008
The appalling, inexplicable mistake by two doctors at Albany Medical Center Hospital that took the life of Lillian Cedeno and her baby in 1985 generated a lot of publicity. But if it happened today, would it get any attention at all?
The answer would seem to be no, given the silence of the Capital Region’s newspapers on alleged medical negligence over the past 10 years.
And it’s not that all the area’s hospitals have not faced – and often eventually settled – many lawsuits accusing them of causing death and serious injury.
But the newspapers haven’t reported even the most serious of these claims. What they have done, though, is run a steady stream of advertising for the hospitals.
These ads might lead people to think that the hospitals are in competition with one another. But a closer examination of the announcements reveals that each hospital usually promotes a different specialty. It also reveals that they take turns in running major campaigns, suggesting that they are coordinating their advertising calendars while maintaining a steady stream of revenue to an uncritical media.
And this absence of bad publicity can affect the amount that the hospitals’ insurers have to pay out when a claim is settled (which is almost always only after several years of litigation and often only after the plaintiff’s attorneys have been forced to prepare for a trial and a verdict that the insurer knows all along it will never risk).
The Cedeno case was settled a year after the deaths for $400,000 (which, adjusted for inflation would be $810,200 today)*. Of that, $360,000 – $729,180 in today’s dollars – was for Lillian Cedeno’s wrongful death and conscious pain and suffering, and $40,000 ($81,200 today) for the wrongful death of her baby, Lillian Kathy Valerio.
But it would have been a lot less if the mistake had not been reported, according to E. Stewart Jones of Troy, an attorney who represented the Cedeno estate. In a story that ran in July 1986 in the Times Union, Jones was quoted as saying: “If it wasn’t for all the publicity that surrounded the case, the mother’s life would have been worth $50,000 to $75,000 maximum and the baby $25,000,” because, he said, “the woman had no work skills and terminal cancer, which reduced her life’s worth in dollar terms.”
The case also prompted a debate on the public’s right to know versus the right to privacy. Among those attending a forum held at the College of St. Rose in April 1986 were Dr. Anthony Tartaglia, then chief of staff at Albany Med, and Harry Rosenfeld, (of Watergate fame) then editor, now retired and editor at large at the Times Union.
Tartaglia defended the hospital’s decision to withhold the identities of the two doctors involved in the Cedeno case for three months, claiming that if their names had been disclosed, reporters “would have swarmed to their homes.”
But Rosenfeld cited a very similar case in Miami. “There, the names of all the doctors were released right away,” he said. “They accepted full responsibility. The straightforward approach of the Miami doctors was the best one to take.”
Albany Med was cited by the state Health Department for three violations in the Cedeno case, but it said a possible fine of $3,000 would not be imposed if within 10 days the hospital came up with a plan to improve its procedures regarding the administration of potentially dangerous drugs. A second investigation concluded that the two doctors should not be charged with medical misconduct. However, they were both transferred to doing what Tartaglia told The New York Times was ‘no patient-care work.”
But even with the lenient action taken by the state for a seemingly inexcusable error, an organization that represents hospitals was not happy. George Allen, president of the New York State Hospital Association, sent a letter to then health commissioner David Axelrod, complaining that press stories emanating from the department about medical errors at Albany Med and several other medical facilities were ‘pillorying hospitals.” Allen suggested that Axelrod hold a press conference “to inform the public that New York’s hospitals are the finest in the world.”
A spokesman for the department didn’t agree. “The Health Department found deficiencies in each case,” Bill Fagel was quoted as saying in a Times Union story in April 1986. “We don’t feel these are negative,” he said, referring to the published reports. “From our point of view, these are constructive in the sense that the hospital is bound to live up to the hospital code and rules and regulations.
“And when they violate it, the public has a right to know.”
*Inflation adjustments from the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics Consumer Price Index, April 1986-July 2008: 102.55 percent.