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Pushing to improve patient safety; State, federal officials press campaign at local briefing of health care industry

The controversy over health reform last year overshadowed a major initiative of the new law $1 billion to help hospitals reduce medical errors.

The campaign aims to cut down on preventable hospital-acquired conditions, such as infections, by 40 percent over the next three years and hospital readmissions by 20 percent.

The Department of Health and Human Services launched the effort known as Partnership for Patients in April, and state and federal health officials Wednesday encouraged hospitals here to pledge their support during a stop in Buffalo. "We have the best chance in a generation to transform the health system," Dr. Nirav Shah, state health commissioner, said at a briefing for hospital officials organized by the Western New York Healthcare Association.

A 1999 report by the Institute of Medicine, To Err Is Human, brought greater attention to patient safety problems in hospitals, estimating that as many as 98,000 Americans die each year from preventable conditions.

Other studies have since added to the alarming evidence, including research published in April in the journal Health Affairs indicating that one-third of hospital patients experience a medical error and about 7 percent are harmed permanently or die as a result.

The study estimated the cost of measureable medical errors that harm patients at $17.1 billion in 2008 and cited pressure ulcers followed by post-operative infections as the most common errors.

Shah, a 1990 graduate of Williamsville East High School, said patient-safety programs have reduced some types of hospital-acquired infections in the state, but success has been uneven, and there is a need for more improvement. "This [initiative] builds on the progress we already have made," he said.

All of the hospitals in Western New York either have pledged to support the initiative or intend to make a pledge, a symbolic gesture officials are seeking from institutions across the country, said John Bartimole, president of the regional health care association.

"The problem is that good people are trapped in bad systems," said Dr. Jamie Torres, echoing a talking point used by federal officials in their efforts to draw attention and support to the campaign.

Torres, director of the Health and Human Services region that includes New York State, encouraged health care organizations here to seek as much funding as possible from the initiative.

The Affordable Care Act's provisions include $500 million to test different models for improving patient care and help hospitals adopt best practices. Another $500 million will be made available for projects that reduce problems that arise when patients transition from hospital to home or other health care settings.

Bartimole said the plan is to funnel the money through such organizations as the Healthcare Association of New York State, which would then supply contractors to hospitals to help them adopt approaches to improve quality.

"The strategy, if it works, will save $50 billion over the next decade," said Dr. Nancy Nielsen, senior adviser to the new Innovation Center at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Nielsen, of Orchard Park, is former head of the Office of Medical Education at the University at Buffalo and a past president of the American Medical Association.

She said the aim is to expand practices for hospitals to reduce errors for which there is strong evidence that they work.

Under the health reform law, the government will link reimbursement with patient safety and quality. Medicare, the federal health plan for those 65 and older, will pay more to hospitals that do well on certain measures and pay less to institutions that score poorly.

"There is a human reason for preventing errors," Nielsen said. "But there now is also a business case for it."