2nd congressional hearing set on Maryland General

Accreditation among chief concerns, Cummings says

May 22, 2004|By Walter F. Roche Jr. | Walter F. Roche Jr.,SUN STAFF

In an unusual move, a congressional panel will hold a second hearing next month on the issues that led to severe laboratory testing problems at Maryland General Hospital.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, who represents the district where the 243-bed hospital is located, said too many questions remained after the first hearing, held Tuesday by a subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee. He said he expects the Maryland General inquiry to lead to "two or three significant legislative proposals" aimed at ensuring that the problems do not recur and that hospital inspection and accreditation programs nationwide are more thorough and coordinated.

"We've got to follow up," said Cummings, the Baltimore Democrat who arranged the first hearing. "I'm very concerned with the process of accreditation."

He said he wants the panel to hear again from representatives of the College of American Pathologists, which gave the lab high marks in an accreditation survey done while severe problems existed; Maryland Health Secretary Nelson J. Sabatini; and the head of the University of Maryland Medical System, Edmond F. Notebaert.

Kristin Turner, the former Maryland General lab technician who brought the testing scandal to light by informing state officials, also is expected to be invited to testify. Turner was unable to attend the initial hearing because of health problems.

The hearing was prompted by the discovery that Maryland General had issued HIV and hepatitis test results to about 460 patients despite instrument readings showing that those results might be inaccurate.

The hospital has offered free retests to more than 2,000 patients who were tested during a 14-month period on the Labotech blood analyzer. Thus far, two of the more than 1,000 patients who were retested have tested positive for HIV although they had tested negative initially. Three patients who originally tested negative for hepatitis have tested positive on the second test.

Notebaert said the reversed test results do not necessarily mean the original tests were inaccurate because the health status of the patients might have changed during the period between the two tests.

Among the legislative proposals Cummings said he expects to result from the hearings are measures to ensure protection for whistleblowers who bring problems to the attention of inspectors.

He said he was especially troubled by the testimony Tuesday of former Maryland General laboratory employee Teresa Williams, who told the panel that lab technicians were intimidated into silence during recent critical inspections. She told the committee that current and former employees were still afraid to come forward.

"Employees need to be protected," said Cummings, adding that witness intimidation is of particular concern to Congress. "There's nothing more offensive to a member of Congress than to have a witness intimidated."

Citing the testimony of Sabatini, Cummings said legislation also might be needed to ensure that state and federal agencies, along with private accreditation agencies, communicate with each other and share the results of their inspections.

Sabatini told the panel that poor communication was one factor in the failure to detect Maryland General's problems. He said state and federal agencies, along with accreditation organizations, share the blame for not acting sooner.

Sabatini also questioned the legitimacy of the hospital inspection and accreditation process and warned of a close relationship between the accreditation agencies such as CAP and the facilities they inspect.

Cummings noted that CAP officials testified that the inspection teams that were sent to Maryland General in 2001 and 2003 were composed of staffers from other area health facilities.

"The question is, do you send in local people when that can lead to favoritism?" Cummings said.

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