WASHINGTON -- It's a new way to push for patient safety: Don't pay hospitals when they commit certain errors.
Medicare will start hitting hospitals where it hurts in October, and other insurers are hot on the trail.
That has the nation's hospitals exploring innovative programs to prevent injury and infection: Hand-washing spies. Surgical sponges that sound an alarm if left in the body. Even a room sterilizer that promises to wipe out bacteria left lurking on bedrails.
"Money talks," said Dr. Steven Gordon, infectious disease chief at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. "Every hospital CFO, this gets their attention."
And patients' first sign that something is changing may involve lessening of a big indignity: Today, one in four hospitalized patients is outfitted with a urinary catheter. The tubes trigger more than half a million urinary tract infections a year, the most common hospital-caused infection.
Yet many patients don't even need catheters -- they're an automatic precaution after certain surgeries -- and many who do need them have them for days longer than necessary. Why? The University of Michigan reported the first national study of catheter practices last month, finding nearly half of hospitals don't even keep track of who gets one. Fewer than one in 10 hospitals does a daily check to see if the catheter is still needed, a simple but proven infection-reducing system.
With those infections topping Medicare's do-not-pay list, Gordon says hospitals already are beginning to get choosier about who needs catheters, and to yank them faster.
Even when a hospital makes a preventable error, it still can be reimbursed for the extra treatment that patient will now require.
Some errors can add $10,000 to $100,000 to the cost of a patient's stay.
Beginning Oct. 1, Medicare no longer will pay those extra-care costs for eight preventable hospital errors, including catheter-caused urinary tract infections, injuries from falls and leaving objects in the body after surgery. Nor can hospitals bill the injured patient for those extra costs.
Next year, Medicare will add three more errors to the no-pay list; ventilator-caused pneumonia and drug-resistant staph infections are top candidates.
Medicare, which insures about 44 million elderly and disabled people, estimates the move will save the government about $190 million over five years.
It also sparked a movement: Private insurance giants like Aetna are moving to make hospitals absorb the cost of serious errors. Pennsylvania last month said it would follow Medicare's example and stop Medicaid payments, too. The American Hospital Association is urging members to voluntarily quit billing for treatment of serious errors, and hospitals in a number of states, from Minnesota to Vermont, have announced they will.