HEALTH DEPARTMENT INVESTIGATION
Howard University Hospital Also Has Infant Remains
Wednesday, February 28, 2007
D.C. health officials said yesterday that a second hospital has stored the remains of newborns and fetuses dating back several years, in violation of city laws.
Howard University Hospital has 25 sets of remains in its morgue, some from 2003, officials said. When added to 95 sets of remains dating from 2001 reported recently by Washington Hospital Center, the District's infant mortality rate for the last several years is certain to rise, officials said.
It is unclear why two hospitals had so many remains for so long. Washington Hospital officials have blamed it on bureaucratic inattention. Howard University did not respond to calls and e-mails.
At Howard, health investigators found one set of remains from 2003, five from 2004, eight from 2005 and 11 from 2006. On Friday, health officials sent Howard administrators a list of deficiencies and a plan for corrections. The hospital has until March 9 to respond, Health Department spokeswoman Lelia Abrar said.
The remains were discovered after city health investigators began examining hospital pathology departments last month, shortly after Washington Hospital Center notified them of the 95 sets of remains still in its morgue. A hospital spokesman said most were the result of stillbirths or miscarriages.
Under city health law, remains must be disposed of within 30 days.
District Health Director Gregg A. Pane said Health Department investigators who visited hospital morgues in the city found no other cases involving remains kept beyond the 30-day limit. However, two hospitals contacted by The Washington Post yesterday acknowledged having remains beyond the legal limit.
Greater Southeast Community Hospital officials said they have the remains of one infant stillborn in June. An official there said the hospital had been trying to track down the mother.
At Children's Hospital, which transfers unclaimed bodies to the D.C. medical examiner, two cases are being transferred, a spokeswoman said. Each is more than 30 days but less than six months past the date of death, she said.
Pane said he intends to levy a fine against Howard but has not yet determined the amount.
On Monday, Pane said he had fined Washington Hospital Center, the city's largest health facility, $8,000, the maximum allowed. A $4,000 penalty was imposed for failing to keep accurate logs, request cremations, locate relatives and label remains. The facility also was fined $1,000 for each of the four years since the 30-day law was enacted.
The city's infant mortality rate from 2001 through 2005 is expected to rise because, Pane said, a number of the deaths were not reported to the city's vital statistics office.
Health investigators have not determined how many of the remains were of infants who died shortly after birth and how many were miscarriages before the fetuses were considered viable.
Washington Hospital Center officials said the backlog there developed when the hospital changed its policy to allow parents who had just lost a fetus or baby more time to decide whether to make arrangements or have the hospital handle the remains. Then two key employees left, officials said.
Hospitals have a wide array of policies. Providence Hospital gives parents seven days to decide on the disposition of remains, but that week may be extended. "If we've had contact with them and they're still going back and forth, we're going to let it slide until it gets close to the 30 days," said Deborah Morrison, vice president for quality improvement and risk management at Providence.
At Georgetown University Hospital, parents have 72 hours to consider what to do. When the hospital is asked to be responsible for remains, it has them cremated and then buried in a shared vault at Mount Olivet Cemetery in Northeast, with each name recorded there.
Spokeswoman Marianne Worley said yesterday that, in such emotionally wrought situations, most people want the hospital to take charge.
An official at the College of American Pathologists, a Chicago-based committee that accredits hospital laboratories, said after hearing about Washington Hospital Center: "We are looking to see if it warrants an investigation."