As Patients Caught COVID Inside Hospitals, Government Oversight Fell Short

One after the other, the nurses taking good care of actress Judi Evans at Riverside Group Hospital saved calling out sick.

Sufferers had been coughing as staffers wheeled the maskless cleaning soap opera star across the California hospital whereas treating her for accidents from a horseback fall in Could 2020, Evans mentioned.

She remembered they took her to a room to take away blood from her compressed lung the place one other maskless affected person was additionally getting his lung drained. He was crying out that he didn’t need to die of covid.

Nobody had informed her to put on a masks, she mentioned. “It didn’t cross my thoughts, as I’m in a hospital the place you’re presupposed to be protected.”

Then, a couple of week into her hospital keep, she examined optimistic for covid-19. It left the 57-year-old hospitalized for a month, staring down greater than $1 million in payments for therapy prices and affected by debilitating long-haul signs, she mentioned.

Hospitals, like Riverside, with excessive charges of covid sufferers who didn’t have the analysis after they had been admitted have not often been held accountable as a consequence of a number of gaps in authorities oversight, a KHN investigation has discovered.

Whereas a federal reporting system carefully tracks hospital-acquired infections for MRSA and different bugs, it doesn’t publicly report covid caught in particular person hospitals.

Medicare officers, tapped by Congress a long time in the past to make sure high quality care in hospitals, additionally found a gaping gap of their authority as covid unfold by way of the nation. They could not force non-public accreditors — which nearly 90% of hospitals pay for oversight — to do focused infection-control inspections. Meaning Riverside and almost 4,200 different hospitals didn’t obtain these particular covid-focused inspections, in keeping with a government watchdog report, despite the fact that Medicare requested accreditors to do them in March 2020.

Seema Verma, former chief of Medicare and Medicaid underneath President Donald Trump, mentioned authorities inspectors went into almost each nursing house final yr. That the identical couldn’t be accomplished for hospitals reveals an issue. “We didn’t have the authority,” she informed KHN. “That is one thing to be corrected.”

KHN previously reported that at the least 10,000 sufferers nationwide had been recognized with covid in hospitals final yr after being admitted for one thing else — a certain undercount of the an infection’s unfold inside hospitals, since that information evaluation primarily contains Medicare sufferers 65 and older.

Nationally, 1.7% of Medicare inpatients had been documented as having covid recognized after being admitted for an additional situation, in keeping with information from April by way of September 2020 that hospitals reported to Medicare. CDIMD, a Nashville-based consulting and information analytics firm, analyzed the information for KHN.

At Riverside Group Hospital, 4% of the covid Medicare sufferers had been recognized after admission — greater than double the nationwide common. At 38 different hospitals, that fee was 5% or greater. All these hospitals are permitted by non-public accreditors, and 29 of them maintain “The Gold Seal of Approval” from their accreditor.

To make sure, the information has limitations: It represents a troublesome time within the pandemic, when protecting gear and checks had been scarce and vaccines weren’t but obtainable. And it may embody community-acquired circumstances that had been gradual to indicate up. However hospital-employed medical coders resolve whether or not a case of covid was current on admission primarily based on medical doctors’ notes, and are educated to question medical doctors if it’s unclear. Some establishments fared higher than others — whereas the American public was left at nighttime.

Spurred by critical complaints, federal inspectors discovered infection-control points in few of these 38 hospitals final yr. In Michigan, inspectors reported that one hospital “failed to offer and preserve a sanitary surroundings ensuing within the potential for the unfold of infectious illness to 151 served by the ability.” In Rhode Island, inspectors discovered a hospital “​​did not have an efficient hospital-wide program for the surveillance and prevention” of covid.

KHN was capable of finding federal inspection reviews documenting infection-control points for eight of these 38 hospitals. The opposite 30 hospitals across the nation, from Alabama to Arizona, had no publicly obtainable federal information of infection-control issues in 2020.

KHN discovered that even when state inspectors in California assessed hospitals with excessive charges of covid recognized after admission, they recognized few shortcomings.

“The American public thinks somebody is watching over them,” mentioned Lisa McGiffert, co-founder of the Affected person Security Motion Community, an advocacy group. “Usually they suppose somebody’s in cost and going to ensure dangerous issues don’t occur. Our oversight system in our nation is so damaged and so untrustworthy.”

The information exhibits that the issue has lethal penalties: A couple of fifth of the Medicare covid sufferers who had been recognized after admission died. And it was pricey as nicely. In California alone, the whole hospital prices for such sufferers from April by way of December final yr was over $845 million, in keeping with an evaluation accomplished for KHN by the California Division of Well being Care Entry and Data.

The Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention has pledged funding for elevated infection-control efforts — however that cash is just not targeted on monitoring covid’s unfold in hospitals. As a substitute, it’s going to spend $2.1 billion partly to assist an current monitoring system for hospital-acquired pathogens similar to MRSA and C. diff.

The CDC doesn’t at the moment observe hospital-acquired covid, nor does it plan to take action with the extra funding. That monitoring is finished by one other a part of the U.S. Division of Well being and Human Companies, in keeping with Dr. Arjun Srinivasan, affiliate director for the CDC’s well being care-associated infection-prevention packages. Nevertheless it’s not made public on a hospital-by-hospital foundation. HHS officers didn’t reply to questions.

The Scene at Riverside

In March 2020, Evans was alarmed by nonstop TV footage of covid deaths, so she and her husband locked down. They hadn’t been going out a lot, anyway, since shedding their solely little one on the finish of 2019 to a different public well being disaster — fentanyl.

On the time, issues about covid had been mounting among the many employees at Riverside Group Hospital, a for-profit HCA Healthcare facility.

The hospital’s extremely protecting N95 masks had been pulled off the provision room cabinets and put in a central workplace, in keeping with Monique Hernandez, a store steward for her union, Service Staff Worldwide Union Native 121RN. Solely nurses who had sufferers getting aerosol-generating procedures similar to intubation — which had been believed on the time to unfold the virus — may get one, she mentioned.

She mentioned that follow left the nurses on her unit with a troublesome selection: both say you had a affected person present process such procedures or threat getting sick.

Nurse unions had been early adopters of the notion — now extensively accepted — that covid is unfold by minuscule particles that may linger within the air. Research since have matched the genetic fingerprint of the virus to indicate that covid has unfold amongst staff or sufferers sporting surgical masks as a substitute of extra protecting masks like N95s.

On April 22, 2020, Hernandez and different nurses joined a silent protest outdoors the hospital the place they held up indicators saying “PPE Over Revenue.” By that point, the hospital had a number of employees clusters of an infection, in keeping with Hernandez, and she or he was uninterested in caregivers being in danger.

In a press release, Riverside spokesperson David Maxfield mentioned the hospital’s prime precedence has been to guard employees “to allow them to greatest take care of our sufferers.”

“Any suggestion in any other case ignores the intensive work, planning and coaching we’ve accomplished to make sure the supply of high-quality care throughout this pandemic,” he mentioned.

In mid-Could, Judi Evans’ husband coaxed her into going horseback using — one of many few issues that introduced her pleasure after her son’s dying. On her second day again within the saddle, she was thrown from her horse. She broke her collarbone and 7 ribs, and her lung was compressed. She was taken to Riverside Group Hospital.

There, lots of her nurses wore masks that they had beforehand used, Evans recalled. Different staffers got here in with none masks in any respect, she mentioned. Just a few days in, she mentioned, one of many medical doctors informed her it’s loopy that the hospital was testing her for MRSA and different hospital infections however not covid.

Maxfield mentioned that the hospital started imposing a common masks mandate for workers and guests on March 31, 2020, and, “in step with CDC, sufferers had been and are suggested to put on masks when outdoors their room if tolerated.” He careworn “security of our sufferers and colleagues has been our prime precedence.”

After a couple of week within the hospital, Evans mentioned, she spiked a fever and begged for a covid take a look at. It was optimistic. There isn’t any solution to know for sure the place or how she obtained contaminated however she believes it was at Riverside. Covid infections can take two to 14 days from publicity to indicate signs like a fever, with the common being four to five days. In response to CDC guidance, an infection onset that happens two days or extra after admission might be “hospital-associated.”

Medical doctors informed her they could must amputate her legs after they started to swell uncontrollably, she mentioned.

“It was like being in a horror movie — a type of the place all the pieces that might go flawed does go flawed,” Evans mentioned.

She left with over $1 million in payments from a month-long keep — and her legs, fortunately. She mentioned she nonetheless suffers from long-covid signs and is haunted by the screams of fellow sufferers within the covid ward.

By the tip of that yr, Riverside Group Hospital would report that 58 of its 1,649 covid sufferers had been recognized with the virus after admission, in keeping with state information that covers all payers from April to December.

That’s almost thrice as excessive because the California common for covid circumstances not current on admission, in keeping with the evaluation for KHN by California well being information officers.

“Primarily based on contact tracing, outlined by the CDC and different infectious illness specialists, there is no such thing as a proof to counsel the chance of transmission at our hospital is completely different than what you’d discover at different hospitals,” Maxfield mentioned.

A lawsuit filed in August by the SEIU-United Healthcare Staff West on behalf of the daughter of a hospital lab assistant who died of covid and different hospital staffers says the hospital compelled workers to work with out satisfactory protecting gear and whereas sick and “extremely contagious.”

The hospital “created an unnecessarily harmful work surroundings,” the lawsuit claims, “which in flip has created harmful situations for sufferers” and a “public nuisance.”

Attorneys for Riverside Group Hospital are fighting the ongoing lawsuit. “This lawsuit is an try for the union to achieve publicity, and we’ve filed a movement to finish it,” mentioned Maxfield, the hospital spokesperson.

The hospital’s attorneys have mentioned the plaintiffs obtained covid throughout a spike in native circumstances and are solely speculating that they contracted the virus on the hospital, in keeping with information filed in Riverside County Superior Courtroom.

In addition they mentioned in authorized filings that the courtroom mustn’t step into the place of “authorities businesses who oversee healthcare and office security” and “dealt with the response to the pandemic.”

“A Shortcoming within the Oversight System”

Decades ago, Congress tasked Medicare with guaranteeing protected, high quality care in U.S. hospitals by constructing in routine authorities inspections. Nonetheless, hospitals can decide to pay up to tens of thousands of {dollars} per yr to nongovernmental accreditors entrusted by CMS to certify the hospitals as protected. So 90% do exactly that.

However these accrediting businesses — together with the Joint Fee, which licensed Riverside — are non-public organizations. Thus they don’t seem to be required to comply with CMS’ directives, together with the request in a March 20 memo urging the accrediting businesses to execute focused infection-control surveys aimed toward making ready hospitals for covid’s onslaught.

And they also didn’t ship staffers to survey hospitals for the specialised infection-control inspections in 2020, in keeping with a June 2021 Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General report.

Riverside, regardless of allegations of lax practices, holds The Gold Seal of Approval from the Joint Fee, which last inspected the hospital on-site in Could 2018 earlier than moving into on Nov. 19 this yr.

The inspector basic’s workplace urged CMS to pursue the authority to require particular surveys in a well being emergency — lest it lose management of its mission to maintain hospitals protected.

“CMS couldn’t be sure that accredited hospitals would proceed to offer high quality care and function safely in the course of the COVID-19 emergency,” and couldn’t guarantee it going ahead, the report mentioned.

“We’re telling CMS to do their job,” the report’s creator, Assistant Regional Inspector Basic Calvin Jones, mentioned in an interview. “The covid expertise actually confirmed a shortcoming within the oversight system.”

CMS spokesperson Raymond Thorn mentioned the company agrees with the report’s suggestion and can work on a regulation after the general public well being emergency ends.

Accrediting businesses, nevertheless, pushed again on the inspector basic’s findings. Amongst them: DNV Healthcare USA Inc. Its director of accreditation, Troy McCann, mentioned there was not a spot in oversight. Though he mentioned journey restrictions restricted accreditors capability to fly throughout state traces, his group continued its annual critiques after Could 2020 and included the particular deal with an infection management into them. “We’ve got a robust emphasis, at all times, on security, an infection management and emergency preparedness, which has left our hospitals stronger,” McCann mentioned.

Angela FitzSimmons, spokesperson for the Accreditation Fee for Well being Care, mentioned that the accrediting group’s surveys sometimes deal with an infection management, and the group labored in the course of the pandemic to prioritize hospitals with prior points within the space of an infection prevention.

“We didn’t deem it crucial so as to add random surveys that may happen at a price to the hospital with out simply trigger,” FitzSimmons mentioned.

Maureen Lyons, a spokesperson for the Joint Fee, informed KHN that, after evaluating CMS steering, the nonprofit group determined it might incorporate the infection-control surveys into its surveys accomplished each three years and, within the meantime, present hospitals with the most recent federal steering on covid.

“Hospitals had been working in extremis. Thus, we collaborated carefully with CMS to find out optimum methods throughout this time of emergency,” she mentioned.

The Joint Fee cited issues of safety for its inspectors, who journey to the hospitals and wish correct protecting tools that was working low on the time, as a part of the rationale for its determination.

Verma, the CMS administrator on the time, pushed again on accreditors’ journey security issues, saying that “narrative doesn’t fairly match as a result of the state and CMS surveyors had been going into nursing properties.”

Although Verma cautioned that hospitals had been overwhelmed by the crush of covid sufferers, “doing these inspections could have helped hospitals bolster their infection-control practices,” she mentioned. “With out these surveys, we actually don’t have any means of realizing.”

“Quick Jeopardy”

Medicare inspectors can go right into a privately accredited hospital after they get a critical grievance. They discovered alarming circumstances after they visited a number of the hospitals with excessive charges of covid recognized after a affected person was admitted for an additional concern final yr.

At Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Heart and Hospital in Baltimore, the July 2020 inspection report says “systemic failures left the hospital and all of its sufferers, employees, and guests weak to hurt and attainable dying from COVID-19.”

In response, hospital spokesperson Sharon Boston mentioned that “we’ve seen a big lower within the unfold of the virus at Levindale.”

Inspectors had declared a state of “speedy jeopardy” after they investigated a grievance and found an outbreak that started in April and continued by way of the start of July, with greater than 120 sufferers and workers contaminated with covid. And in a unit for these with Alzheimer’s and different situations, 20% of the 55 sufferers who had covid died.

The hospital moved sufferers whose roommates examined optimistic for covid to different shared rooms, “doubtlessly exposing their new roommate,” the inspection report mentioned. Boston mentioned that was an “remoted” incident and the state of affairs was corrected the following day, with new insurance policies put in place.

The Medicare information analyzed completely for KHN exhibits that 52 of Levindale’s 64 covid hospital sufferers, or 81%, had been recognized with covid after admission from April to September 2020. Boston cited completely different numbers over a distinct time interval: Of 67 covid sufferers, 64 had what she referred to as “hospital-acquired” covid from March to June 2020. That might be almost 96%.

The hospital shares area with a nursing house, although, so KHN didn’t group it with the final short-term acute-care hospitals as a part of the evaluation. Levindale’s final Joint Fee on-site survey was in December 2018, leading to The Gold Seal of Approval. It had not had its once-every-three-years survey as of Dec. 10, 2021, in keeping with the Joint Commission’s tracking.

Boston mentioned Levindale “rapidly addressed” the problems that Medicare inspectors cited, growing affected person testing and extra not too long ago mandating employees vaccines. Since December 2020, Boston mentioned, the ability has not had a covid affected person die.

On the state degree, hospital inspectors in California discovered few issues to quote even at hospitals the place 5% or extra sufferers had been recognized with covid after they had been admitted for an additional concern. Fifty-three complaints about such hospitals went to the Division of Public Well being from April till the tip of 2020. Solely three of these complaints resulted in a discovering of deficiency that facility was anticipated to repair.

CDPH didn’t reply to requests for remark.

A New Chapter

Issues are higher now at Riverside Group Hospital, Hernandez mentioned. She is happy with the present security practices, together with extra protecting gear and HEPA filters for covid sufferers’ rooms. For Hernandez, although, all of it comes too late now.

“We snicker at it,” she mentioned, “nevertheless it hurts your soul.”

Evans mentioned she was capable of negotiate her $1 million-plus hospital payments all the way down to roughly $70,000.

Her covid aftereffects have been ongoing — she mentioned she stopped gasping for air and reaching for her at-home oxygen tank only some months in the past. She nonetheless hasn’t been capable of return to work full time, she mentioned.

For the previous yr, her husband would get up in the midst of the evening to test whether or not her oxygen ranges had been dipping. Frightened of shedding her, he’d slip an oxygen masks on her face, she mentioned.

“I’d stroll 1,000 miles to go to a different hospital,” Evans mentioned, if she may do it another time. “I’d by no means step foot in that hospital once more.”


KHN requested customized analyses of Medicare, California and Florida inpatient hospital information to look at the variety of covid-19 circumstances recognized after a affected person’s admission.

The Medicare and Medicare Benefit information, which incorporates sufferers who’re 65 and older, is from the Facilities for Medicare & Medicaid Companies’ Medicare Supplier Evaluation and Assessment (MedPAR) file and was analyzed by CDIMD, a Nashville-based medical code consulting and information analytics agency. The information is from April 1 by way of Sept. 30, 2020. The information for the fourth quarter of 2020 was not but obtainable.

The information exhibits the variety of inpatient Medicare hospital stays within the U.S., together with the variety of folks recognized with covid-19 and the variety of admissions for which the covid analysis was not “current on admission.” CMS considers some medical situations that aren’t “current on admission” to be hospital-acquired, in accordance to the agency. The information is for basic acute-care hospitals, which can embody a psychiatric flooring, and never for different hospitals similar to these within the Division of Veterans Affairs system or stand-alone psychiatric hospitals.

KHN requested the same evaluation from California’s Division of Well being Care Entry and Data of its hospital inpatient information. That information was from April 1 by way of Dec. 31, 2020, and coated sufferers of all ages and payer varieties and, on the whole, non-public psychiatric and long-term acute-care hospitals. Etienne Pracht, a College of South Florida researcher, supplied the variety of Florida covid sufferers who didn’t have the virus upon hospital admission for all ages and payer varieties at basic and psychiatric hospitals from April 1 by way of Dec. 31, 2020. KHN subtracted the variety of Medicare sufferers within the MedPAR information from the Florida and California datasets so they’d not be counted twice.

To calculate the speed of hospitalized Medicare sufferers who examined optimistic for covid — and died — KHN relied on the MedPAR information for April by way of September. That information contains information for six,629 seniors, 1,409 of whom, or 21%, died. California information for all ages and payer varieties from April by way of December exhibits the same fee: Of two,115 recognized with covid-19 after hospital admission, 435, or 21%, died. The MedPAR information was additionally used to calculate the nationwide fee of 1.7%, with 6,629 of 394,939 covid sufferers recognized with the virus whose infections had been deemed not current on admission, in keeping with the CDIMD evaluation of knowledge that hospitals report back to Medicare. It was additionally used to calculate which entities licensed as short-term acute care hospitals had 5% or extra of their covid circumstances recognized inside the hospital. As said within the story, Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Heart and Hospital in Baltimore was not included in that listing of 38 as a result of it shares area with a nursing house and had fewer than 500 complete discharges.

Information that hospitals undergo Medicare on whether or not an inpatient hospital analysis was “current on admission” is used by Medicare for fee determinations and is meant to incentivize hospitals to stop infections throughout hospital care. The federal Company for Healthcare Analysis and High quality additionally makes use of the information to “help in figuring out high quality of care points.”

Whether or not covid-19 is acquired in a hospital or in the neighborhood is measured in numerous methods. Some nations assume the virus is hospital-acquired whether it is recognized seven or extra days after admission, whereas U.S. data counts circumstances solely after 14 days.

Hospitals’ medical coders who examined affected person information for the information analyzed for this KHN report deal with every doctor’s admission, progress and discharge notes to find out whether or not covid was “current on admission.” They don’t have a set variety of days they search for and are educated to question physicians if the case is unclear, in keeping with Sue Bowman, senior director of coding coverage and compliance on the American Well being Data Administration Affiliation.

KHN tallied the circumstances through which covid-19 was logged within the information as not “current on admission” to the hospital. Some covid circumstances are coded as “U” for having inadequate documentation to make a willpower. Since Medicare and AHRQ take into account the “U” to be an “N” (or not current on admission) for the needs of payment decisions and quality indicators, KHN selected to rely these circumstances within the grand complete.

In 409 of 6,629 Medicare circumstances and in 70 of two,185 California circumstances, the “current on admission” indicator was “U.” The Florida information didn’t embody sufferers whose “current on admission” indicator was “U.” Medical coders have one other code, “W,” for “clinically undetermined” circumstances, which take into account a situation current on admission for billing or high quality measures. Medical coders use the “U” (leaning towards “not current on admission”) and “W” (leaning towards “current on admission”) when there may be some uncertainty in regards to the case. KHN didn’t rely “W” circumstances.

The Medicare MedPAR information contains about 2,500 U.S. hospitals that had at the least a dozen covid-19 circumstances from April by way of September 2020. Of these, 1,070 reported no circumstances of covid recognized after admission for different situations within the Medicare information. Information was suppressed as a consequence of privateness causes for about 1,300 hospitals that had between one and 11 of such covid circumstances. There have been 126 hospitals reporting 12 or extra circumstances of covid that had been “not current on admission” or unknown. For these, we divided the variety of circumstances recognized after admission by the whole variety of sufferers with covid to reach on the fee, as is customary in well being care.

Inspection and Accreditation Evaluation

To guage which of the 38 hospitals detailed above had federal inspection reviews documenting infection-control points, KHN searched CMS’ publicly available “2567” reports, which element deficiencies for every hospital for 2020. For surveys listed on-line as “not obtainable,” KHN requested and obtained them from CMS. KHN additional requested CMS to double-check the remaining hospitals for any inspection reviews that weren’t posted on-line. KHN additionally checked the Affiliation of Well being Care Journalists’ database for every of the 38 hospitals for any extra reviews, in addition to CMS’ Quality, Certification and Oversight Reports web site.

To test that every of those hospitals was accredited, KHN regarded up every hospital using a site run by the Joint Fee and reached out to the accreditors DNV Healthcare USA Inc. and the Accreditation Fee for Well being Care.

To tabulate infection-control complaints for hospitals on the state degree in California, KHN used information obtainable by way of the California Division of Public Well being’s Cal Health Find Database. KHN searched the database for the hospitals that had greater than 5% of covid sufferers being recognized after admission, in keeping with the California information, and tallied all complaints and deficiencies discovered involving an infection management from April to December 2020.