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Published: Sunday, 8/26/2007

A step to reduce deaths

THE nation's hospitals need to do whatever it takes to reduce preventable errors, injuries, and infections in patients. Medicare will soon begin using a new tool in pursuit of that goal when the government stops paying for problems caused by hospitals.

That's a bigger step that it may seem. Every year, nearly 100,000 patients die from medical mistakes that occur in hospitals. Add the costs of those errors to astronomical health-care charges, and the trend is troubling. What is desperately needed is health care that requires fewer dollars and results in fewer preventable deaths.

The new rule, approved last year by Congress, is intended to convert Medicare from being a passive payer to an active player in health care.

Officially, the primary purpose of the policy change is to save lives by forcing hospitals to literally clean up their acts. It will also bring an estimated annual savings of $20 million, and perhaps more.

That's a pittance compared to the $408 billion Medicare pays out annually but every dollar saved will become crucial as the baby boom generation ages. Next year, the first of them turn 62, and, after they join Medicare at 65, the government's health-care payouts are expected to rise dramatically.

Beginning Oct. 1, hospitals will be required to report patient diagnoses at the time of their admission. Then, starting Oct. 1, 2008, Medicare will stop reimbursing hospitals for conditions that did not exist in patients when they were admitted.

The new rules identify several conditions that count as preventable incidents, including objects left inside patients' bodies during surgery, and bed sores, blood incompatibility, and heart, urinary, and vascular infections.

Consumer advocates who fret that hospitals will pass the costs on to patients needn't worry. The new rules prevent hospitals from billing patients for care connected with complications acquired during a hospital stay. That means hospitals must tighten up their operations to keep patients from falling and microbes from spreading. This might be tough on hospitals that have cut staffs to streamline operations and save money, moves that have all too often come at patient expense.

In the long run, though, the new rules won't just improve the well-being of patients. We believe they will be good for hospitals, too.



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