By Stacey Burling
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
The deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health says her agency has investigated "a lot" of complaints about Temple University Hospital since 1,500 nurses and allied health workers went on strike there March 31.
But because of reporting delays she blames on federal regulations, potential patients will not be able to see what those investigations found until at least the middle of next month.
Asked whether this timetable serves the public, especially those who need to decide soon where to go for medical care, Stacy Mitchell, deputy secretary for quality assurance, said: "It serves the public the way the system is designed to serve the public. . . . It is what it is. We’re following our process."
Mitchell said the system did not include special rules for strikes. It is designed to protect hospitals from inspectors who make mistakes or are unfair.
"We have to treat Temple the way that we treat all other hospitals, and I can’t single them out because of their current situation."
The union representing striking workers, PASNAP (Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals), has raised concerns that the 850 replacement workers will affect quality. Maureen May, president of the union at Temple, said she called the Health Department herself last weekend about a critical-care patient who managed to wander out of the hospital.
No new negotiating sessions have been scheduled.
Mitchell said she could not comment on how many investigations the Health Department had done or whether any of them had led to findings of deficiencies. Nor could she comment on the quality of care at the hospital.
Sandy Gomberg, the hospital’s interim chief executive officer, said Temple had been under constant scrutiny from the Health Department. "Every day they are here, seven days a week, and they have been since the beginning of the strike," she said. "Every time they come, they talk to patients, they talk to staff, they tour multiple units. We never know where they’re going to go."
She said the hospital had not written any plans of correction, which are required if the Health Department finds violations of regulations.
Mitchell said the Health Department had 10 days to investigate a complaint and write a statement of deficiency if an inspector thought the complaint was founded. The hospital then has 10 days to write a plan of correction. After that, the department and hospital can spend several more days haggling over the terms of the plan. Then it takes a while to post that plan on the department’s Web site. All told, the process takes 45 to 60 days, Mitchell said.
A hospital may not be cited for mistakes made by individual employees. "What we’re regulating is the institution, and we’re not regulating necessarily individual behavior," she said.
If, for example, a nurse made a medication error, the department would check to see if she had appropriate training and credentials and if the hospital had proper policies and procedures and was following them.
"The overarching regulation is that hospitals have to staff appropriately for the services they provide and the acuity of the patients they take care of," she said.
In extreme cases, the department can levy fines or ban a certain type of admissions.
Mitchell said people could register complaints about hospital quality at 1-800-254-5164.
While the strike is ongoing, she said, "the source that patients need to rely on the most is the physician."