Washington Hospital Center has been fined $8,000 by the District for storing the remains of 95 stillborn babies and fetuses dating to 2001, far beyond the 30-day limit imposed under city law.
The remains were kept in the hospital morgue refrigerator, most of them unclaimed by parents or next of kin.
Senior hospital officials notified city health officials about the remains at a Jan. 3 meeting, shortly after being alerted themselves by hospital pathologists.
The hospital agreed to notify parents and make arrangements for the disposal of the remains by Thursday, according to a Jan. 4 letter to Health Director Gregg A. Pane and obtained by The Washington Post. Janis M. Orlowski, senior vice president and chief medical officer of the hospital, said yesterday that the hospital hired a private investigator to locate remaining parents.
In the letter, Orlowski said the problems began at the end of 2000, when a new policy extended the time grieving parents were given to decide whether they wanted to make private funeral arrangements. Because of the retirement of one key employee and the death of another, the remains were not disposed of, even as the 30-day deadline passed, the letter said.
"There are no excuses for this failure, and while our intentions were good, we failed to follow through," Orlowski said yesterday.
The fine was levied for breaking the disposal requirement and for failing to notify Health Department officials within five days of the deaths. That means the city's infant-mortality statistics have been incomplete and possibly misleading, Pane said.
Pane said yesterday that he has ordered an investigation into whether other D.C. hospitals are in compliance. He said that he expects there will be "a few here and there" but that he doesn't expect as many unreported deaths as Washington Hospital Center had.
In 2003, D.C. health officials marked the fewest infant deaths in the city's history: 76 children had died before they turned 1, down from 86 the previous year. That year's data are among those Pane said could be "altered" by the revelations.
The 95 deaths in question occurred between 2001 and 2006. Hospital administrators said they learned in November from the pathology department that the remains were stored in a morgue refrigerator box measuring 2 feet by 2 feet by 4 feet, Orlowski said. The letter said it convened a task force to review the records to identify the parents and complete arrangements for the remains.
At the time the letter was sent, the hospital had 23 sets of remains -- nine from 2006 and 14 from the prior five years -- for which they had no written authorization on how to dispose of them.
The hospital also had 18 sets of remains dating from 2001 to 2005 and 47 from 2006 for which all required documentation had been received. There were seven additional sets of remains from 2006; the parents had expressed the desire to have private burial services but had not claimed the bodies.
Orlowski said the hospital delivers about 4,500 infants a year. About 90 are stillborn or born too prematurely to survive outside the womb, she said.
The letter was written a day after a meeting of Orlowski, Pane and staff members and attorneys for the hospital and Health Department.
After Orlowski revealed the numbers, Pane ordered a review and recommendations to rectify the situation.
"We deeply regret this administrative failure when a policy changed and personnel departed," Orlowski said in a statement yesterday.
She said that before 2001, parents had five days to decide how the remains should be handled.
"In an effort to be more sensitive to the emotional needs of parents, the Hospital Center added a new category to disposition requests, one that allowed parents more time to make a decision," she said.
About the time of the policy change, the employee in charge of disposition requests died and another left for another job. And there was no review procedure to confirm that arrangements had been made.
"As a result, the hospital center's morgue held remains for which no action was taken," Orlowski said.
Hospital officials have asked the medical examiner's office to help dispose of unclaimed remains.
In its dealings with the Health Department, the hospital repeatedly struck an apologetic tone.
"As we stated at the meeting," Orlowski wrote in her letter, "the leadership of WHC sincerely apologizes for this breach of administrative responsibilities."
She also wrote that hospital officials were "deeply saddened to make our report on this matter."
A new hospital policy gives parents 24 hours to decide what to do with remains.
The hospital also has implemented review and reporting procedures, including daily reviews by the hospital's lab director and a weekly review by the head of health information management.