Two Tulsa hospitals rate poorly in government crackdown of infection rates through HAC program

Reforms reported in first year

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A new federal crackdown that takes money away from hospitals with high infection rates already is prompting reforms in its first year in some Tulsa locations, such as Southwestern Regional Medical Center and Hillcrest Hospital South.   

For decades, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has worked to reduce infection rates by educating hospitals on best practices and making public the number of infections that are contracted by patients while at each facility.

Still, “one in every 25 people who goes into the hospital to get well will end up getting an infection they didn’t have when they walked in the door of the hospital,” said Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, associate director for health care associated infection programs at the CDC .

“It comes out to about 700,000 people per year and we know that around 70,000 of those people will die while they’re in the hospital. We don’t know for sure all of them died because of the infection but we certainly know it didn’t help them get any better,” Srinivasan said.


One in every 25 people who goes into the hospital to get well will end up getting an infection they didn’t have when...

Posted by KJRH on Wednesday, July 29, 2015


Last fall, based on a congressional mandate, the federal government instituted the Hospital Acquired Condition (HAC) Reduction Program in an effort to reduce infection rates. The program, which is overseen by the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS), which along with CDC reports to the Department of Health and Human Services, penalizes poor performing hospitals by docking Medicare reimbursement amounts.  

The goal is to reduce incidents such as blood and urinary tract infections, pressure ulcers, surgical site infections, pneumonia and other complications that cost the government and the private sector billions of dollars each year and “take a significant toll on patients and families,” according to CMS.  

The HAC reduction program rates hospitals on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the worst. The poorest performing hospitals were penalized one percent of their Medicare reimbursement dollars.  While one percent may not seem like a lot, the fines can be significant. In the  first year, CMS penalized any hospital scoring above a 7 out of 10.

At the very least, the penalties appear to be getting the attention of high-level executives.

“We are seeing the chief executive officers, the chief medical officers, the chief operating officers of these hospitals who know their infection rates,” the CDC’s Srinivasan said.  “Historically, that wasn’t always the case.”

CMS penalized 721 hospitals across the country in its first year of the program.  To see how effective the program is, Scripps News sampled 60 hospitals receiving penalties in markets where Scripps operates television stations.  

Twenty-three of the 60 hospitals reported a reduction in hospital-acquired conditions since the penalty was imposed, or noted efforts to improve in response to questions from Scripps. 

Two hospitals did not cite improvement and instead criticized the methodology the federal government used to identify their hospital as a poor performer. A majority, 35 out of 60 penalized hospitals, did not respond to requests for comment. 

In Tulsa, CMS penalized Southwestern Regional Medical Center and Hillcrest Hospital South.   

“We have taken specific measures to address variations in quality indicators,” said hospital spokesperson Heather Gowin, who told Scripps News that Southwestern treats patients who are often more susceptible to infections because they are being treated for advanced and complex cancers. 

Gowin noted the hospital’s commitment to quality and patient safety. “Southwestern Regional Medical Center,” she said, “is engaged in a number of improvement efforts around eliminating hospital acquired infections and assesses its data concurrently.” Its HAC score was 7.250.

Hillcrest Hospital South has developed highly-focused task force teams to help address areas needing improvement, spokesperson Angela Peterson said.

“We have tracked a dramatic decline in central line-associated blood stream infections (CLABSIs), pressure ulcers, Iatrogenic pneumothorax and post operative wound dehiscence in recent years,” she said. Its HAC score was 9.350.

Peterson noted they have “tracked improved outcomes in several of the measures highlighted in the provided CMS data” through the use of one-on-one training and process improvement initiatives.

Medicare’s Hospital Acquired Condition Reduction program has come under criticism for structuring its program in a way that ends up penalizing more teaching hospitals than other types of institutions. The University Medical Center in Las Vegas is one example.

Darnita Cohen, medical center spokesperson, said the “new executive leadership team is looking closely at how the (Medicare) data is collected, reported and interpreted as this particular list is not a reflection of our quality of care.”

In response to the criticism, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services notes its methodology was approved by the National Quality Forum, a committee of experts with representation from diverse sectors of the health care community.

“CMS is confident in the reliability of the data,” said CMS’s Ozinal. “We believe these data are another useful tool for consumers to have when making decisions.”

The CDC acknowledges that teaching hospitals had a higher penalty rate than many other types of hospitals in the program’s first year. Officials there also say larger hospitals can treat more complex patients who face higher infection risks. However, they note larger hospitals also should have more resources to combat the problem.

“I think an important message to note is that while there are many of these larger hospitals that do fall into the group of hospitals that might be subject to payment penalties, there are also some very large hospitals with extremely low infection rates and large teaching hospitals with very good infections rates,” the CDC’s Srinivasan said.

“Just because you’re a big hospital, just because you’re a teaching hospital, doesn’t go hand in hand that you have to have a high infection rate.” 

Medicare’s next Hospital Acquired Condition Reduction Program report is scheduled to be released later this year.

You can contact Mark Greenblatt at and follow him on Twitter @greenblattmark. Angela M. Hill (@AngelaMHill), Scripps National Investigative Producer, contributed to this report.

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