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Medicare Safety Project Gets the Nod from 2,000 Hospitals

By Jane Norman, CQ HealthBeat Associate Editor

July 8, 2011 -- Rising costs in the health care system are a key issue as lawmakers and the Obama administration negotiate on a deficit reduction plan. On Friday, Health and Human Services officials reminded people that the agency is doing its part to bring costs down.

More than 2,000 hospitals and 2,500 other organizations have signed on to a voluntary Medicare initiative aimed at reducing medical errors in the nation’s health care system, HHS officials announced Friday. The goal is to help patients and also curb the costs associated with hospital errors.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said that in less than three months the agency has met its goal of getting 2,000 hospitals to participate in the Partnership for Patients. The aim is to reduce preventable hospital errors by 40 percent in the next three years. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, as of 2009 there were more than 5,000 hospitals in the United States.

In unveiling the three-year project earlier this year, Health and Human Services leaders said it has the potential to help save 60,000 lives and save up to $35 billion in costs, including $10 billion just for Medicare.

At the time it was launched it already had the backing of 500 hospitals, physicians and nurses groups, consumer organizations and employers, HHS officials said. But it is not an easy decision for a hospital to take part. Because it’s voluntary, the project requires time and resources from hospital CEOs and staff members at a time when they’re also working to comply with the health care law (PL 111-148, PL 111-152).

The agency is spending $1 billion from the law to put the partnership in place.

“This level of participation, this early, is evidence of the strong support across the country for strengthening American health care for future generations by improving it; not cutting it as some have proposed to do,” HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in a statement.

President Obama and congressional leaders are deep in negotiations on the deficit as they face an Aug. 2 deadline to raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling, and saving money in public health programs is a major issue. The House Republican budget, authored by Budget Chairman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, would have reduced Medicare spending by changing the program into one in which people used an allocation from the government to choose their own health care plan. Americans now over 55 would not be affected.

The Obama administration also has proposed reductions in Medicare spending by giving additional powers to an independent advisory board, among other measures. However, administration officials say they would accomplish their reductions by curbing health spending rather than affecting beneficiaries.

Sebelius said Friday that Iowa hospitals were particularly to be congratulated for their 100 percent participation in the patient safety initiative.

“At a time when Medicare costs are expected to rise steeply over the next decade—and given that we lose billions to waste, harm, and error in care—every partner in this program has committed to working together to build a better, safer, more reliable health care system for all,” she said.

The project is supposed to reduce the number of preventable in-hospital medication errors, central-line associated bloodstream infections, falls and other injuries. In addition, providers are to help patients heal successfully after discharge, and target unnecessary return visits.

Medicare administrator Donald M. Berwick said in a statement that HHS knows progress is possible because there are providers all over the country who have made major inroads against specific forms of harm. He pointed to the public hospital system in Denver, where safety has been improved by having disinfectant foam available outside each patient’s room and there are checklists at the bedsides.

HHS officials are discussed the partnership in a call with providers Friday.

Jane Norman can be reached at [email protected].  

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