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Risk to Patient Safety Threatens Accreditation

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By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 19, 2007

Building conditions are so egregious at Greater Southeast Community Hospital that a survey team concluded last week that patient safety was in immediate danger, triggering a preliminary denial of accreditation that could become final in December, officials said yesterday.

The assessment of the Joint Commission, a national health-care organization, soon could grow even harsher. Inspectors returned this week and spent hours evaluating clinical issues; the team's report is expected by early November.

After months of dire appraisals and intense rescue efforts by hospital staff members and D.C. regulators, the incremental progress -- which repeatedly has been undermined by additional problems -- might be too little, too late. The latest problems involve the fire alarm and fire suppression systems and the emergency power supply.

Officials familiar with the commission's process, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because its review is not complete, predicted that the hospital's lengthy history of deterioration would outweigh other factors in the accreditation decision. The inspectors' visits were a follow-up after warnings in August about the conditions.

A commission spokesman would confirm only that an "immediate threat to life" prompted the change in accreditation status. He would not discuss the areas cited.

The hospital's chief executive could not be reached for comment yesterday. D.C. Council member David A. Catania (I-At Large), who leads the council's health committee and has held a series of hearings exposing Greater Southeast's deficiencies, declined to comment.

Four years ago, Greater Southeast lost its accreditation for several months because of patient care concerns; the problems ranged from blood transfusion errors to poor screening of workers and doctors. That revocation cost the hospital as much as $2.65 million a month, according to attorneys in the bankruptcy case the hospital is now involved in, because private insurers refused to pay for elective procedures.

A loss of approval now probably would hold a smaller financial impact because Greater Southeast has far fewer patients with private insurance. Still, the action would be yet another blow to the staff and would do little to reassure the hospital's patients or the area it serves, in Ward 8. Its future has been hanging on its impending sale to a New England company, Specialty Hospitals of America.

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) and the council have agreed to assist with $79 million in public funds, more than a third of which would go toward new technology and equipment. The council is to vote on the final details Tuesday.

During a hearing yesterday on Specialty's application for the certificate of need, which must be approved before the deal can close in several weeks, the company's president, Eric Rieseberg, addressed the Joint Commission's latest censure. He compared accreditation status to "a Good Housekeeping seal of approval" and said its denial would be a "significant watershed event."

Specialty would hope to regain accreditation within six to nine months of taking over the hospital, he said.

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