NYT investigation exposes trouble for tiny hearts at UNC
The N.C. Department of Health and Human Services found “no current deficiencies” in its review of UNC Hospital’s operations in the wake of a New York Times story about problems in pediatric cardiology.
In a statement Thursday, the department said it immediately coordinated a review with its federal oversight agency, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, after The New York Times story published May 30.
The Division of Health Service Regulation (DHSR) “evaluated the delivery of care, treatment and services provided in the University of North Carolina Hospital’s Congenital Heart Program (Children’s Hospital) to determine the hospital’s current compliance with the CMS Conditions of Participation (COPs),” according to Thursday’s report.
UNC Health Care spokesperson Alan M. Wolf confirmed Thursday that UNC Hospitals had received the DHHS report, but “we aren’t going to have further comment at this time.”
The division’s staff was on site May 30, the day the report was published, as well as June 3-7 and June 10-14. Additional interviews were conducted at a later date, DHHS said.
The division wanted to determine whether the hospital meets the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services’ Conditions of Participation. The investigation found that “UNC Hospital in Chapel Hill currently meets the CMS requirements for participation and there were no current deficiencies cited as a result of the investigation,” DHHS said.
The New York Times reported it received secret audio recordings that included audio from a meeting of doctors where Dr. Timothy Hoffman, the chief of pediatric cardiology, is heard saying: “We are in crisis, and everyone is aware of that.”
Pediatric cardiologists expressed concerns about the program during meetings in 2016 and 2017, The New York Times reported. UNC eventually released cardiology mortality rate data to the Times that showed a higher death rate than many other hospitals nationwide.
UNC Hospital stopped performing complicated heart surgeries during the investigation, The News & Observer previously reported.
UNC Health Care said in a news release at the time that it was taking steps “to restore confidence in its pediatric heart surgery program.”
“I want to acknowledge in the sincerest way possible, that for our team and for me personally, the death of any child is one too many,” Dr. Wesley Burks, CEO of UNC Health Care, said in a statement then.
Wolf said in an email to refer to the health system’s June statement. That statement said complex pediatric congenital heart surgeries would be paused, not just for the DHHS review, but also until a new external advisory board finishes its own investigation.
In addition to creating the external board, plans include a new pediatric heart surgery Family Advisory Council. UNC will also recruit additional physicians and care providers for the pediatric heart surgery team among other measures.
On Thursday, DHHS also released its letter to UNC Hospital CEO Gary L. Park with its findings “related to allegations on the delivery of care, treatment and services provided in the University of North Carolina Hospital’s Congenital Heart Program (Children’s Hospital) during 2016 through 2019 and to determine the hospital’s current compliance with the CMS Conditions of Participation.”
The report looked at UNC’s governing body, patient rights, quality assessment and performance improvement, medical staff, nursing services, laboratory services, discharge planning and surgical services.
The survey team did not find “noncompliance,” wrote Azzie Conley, section chief in DHHS’ Division of Health Service Regulation, Acute Care Licensure and Certification Section.
Dr. Bill Roper, interim president of the UNC System, told The News & Observer in June that he and other hospital officials also had investigated the heart surgery program in 2016 after hearing about problems. Then, he was dean of UNC’s medical school and CEO of UNC Health Care.
“This matter, at the time it was raised in 2016, was thoroughly investigated with all of the relevant, credentialed people involved in the review, both internally and externally,” Roper told The News & Observer. “And the leadership of UNC Health Care, and the medical school, and the board to which we report were satisfied with the review and we continued the program.”
Roper was named interim president of the UNC System last year.