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Sometimes you stumble across a corruption story so egregious, it sounds too awful to be true. This is one of those stories.
Florida hospital chain Tenet Healthcare has been mired in scandal after an unusually high number of babies died from heart surgery at one of its hospitals. The hospital’s infant mortality rate following pediatric heart surgery was 12.5 percent, nearly three times the national average.
Instead of addressing the abnormally high infant death rate, Tenet Healthcare sent $200,000 in campaign contributions to Florida Governor Rick Scott and his party. In response, the governor’s administration repealed Florida’s pediatric heart surgery standards altogether.
Like I said – it’s one of those stories.
Between 2011 and 2015, at least nine babies died from heart surgery at Tenet Healthcare-owned St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Still more children were permanently disabled by their time at St. Mary’s.
Take Layla McCarthy, the little girl pictured below. At just 7 weeks old, she received a surgery to widen an aorta. But, for reasons St. Mary’s doctors couldn’t explain, the procedure also left her without use of her legs. Layla is now a paraplegic. Her parents hold out hope that she’ll be able to walk with crutches some day.
A panel of independent pediatric heart doctors with the Florida Department of Health conducted an official review of St. Mary’s program in 2014. The results were appalling. Dr. Jeffrey Jacobs, a professor of cardiac surgery at Johns Hopkins, described the situation at St. Mary’s as “the failure of the entire team and system.”
The review found numerous ways the St. Mary’s program failed to live up to state standards for pediatric cardiac facilities, including “uniformly inadequate” reports on heart ultrasounds, a complete lack of expertise in pediatric electrophysiology (the study of abnormal heart rhythms), and a notable deficit of surgical experience among St. Mary’s doctors.
As reported by CNN, the independent panel’s final recommendation was crystal-clear: “stop doing heart surgeries on babies under the age of 6 months, and stop doing complex heart surgeries on all children.”
Yet the surgeries, and deaths, continued for an entire year, until CNN’s investigative report blew the lid off the story and led St. Mary’s pediatric heart surgery program to permanently close its doors.
You would think that in the wake of this utter fiasco, Florida’s government would prioritize protecting newborn babies from undue harm. Instead, the governor’s administration abolished the state’s child heart surgery standards altogether.
The medical community was appalled, especially upon discovering the apparent motivation for the change: political donations. Tenet Healthcare contributed $50,000 to Governor Rick Scott’s political action committee in 2013 and again in 2014. The hospital chain also directed $50,000 in contributions to the Republican Party of Florida each of those years.
“These standards have been in use for more than 30 years, and they’re widely acknowledged to ensure safety — why would you repeal them? If the state really felt it didn’t have the legislative authority to have the standards, why wouldn’t they go out and get that authority?” ~ Dr. Peter Pronovost, Johns Hopkins Medicine
As soon as Tenet’s donations began flowing, high-ranking government officials reportedly tried to interfere with the independent investigation into St. Mary’s. They even tried to edit the panel’s scathing report before it came out in 2014.
When doctors refused to let the state interfere, Florida’s standards for children’s heart surgery were completely abandoned. The standards, which had been in place for decades and even served as a model for pediatric heart surgery programs in other states, have now been entirely removed from state law. According to numerous Florida-based pediatric heart doctors, the order to drop the standards came directly from Governor Scott’s office.
The St. Mary’s tragedy is just the latest example of how our dangerously outdated anti-corruption laws have a devastating impact on people’s lives. Special interests can effectively buy public policy. Neither Governor Scott nor Tenet Healthcare is likely to face legal repercussions for their actions.
When we say “corruption is legal in America,” this is exactly what we’re talking about.
We can and must pass laws to prevent the clear conflicts of interest that come when special interests like Tenet Healthcare make massive contributions to politicians. Until we do, tragedies like St. Mary’s will continue – and the special interests who stand to benefit will keep getting a free pass.