A high-powered foursome of Washington lawmakers and cabinet secretaries visited two Pittsburgh hospitals last week for an in-depth learning session on healthcare quality and patient-safety initiatives. The field trip, conducted in the midst of a weeklong congressional break, came as emerging Senate leaders consider introducing new legislation to track medical errors.
Sens. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and William Frist, M.D. (R-Tenn.), joined by Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill and HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson, spent the day on the campuses of 399-bed Mercy Hospital of Pittsburgh and 752-bed UPMC Presbyterian. The visit was coordinated by the Pittsburgh Regional Healthcare Initiative (PRHI), a 3-year-old coalition of hospitals, insurers and purchasers. O'Neill, as then-Alcoa board chairman, helped create the group with the goal of reducing health costs and increasing quality in the region.
Kennedy and Frist are now the chair and ranking Republican, respectively, of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee as a result of the party switch by former chairman Sen. James Jeffords (I-Vt.). According to the Senate committee staff, Kennedy and Frist have drafted legislation to establish a National Patient Safety Database to track medical errors using voluntary reporting by providers.
Dean Rosen, senior health policy adviser for Frist, said he thinks "there is a better than 50-50 chance" of legislation addressing medical errors to be passed by Congress this year. Kennedy press secretary Jim Manley said there is no schedule for when the proposed Kennedy-Frist patient safety bill would be introduced in the Senate.
The two senators observed firsthand on May 31 the tracking systems for medication errors and hospital-acquired infections used by hospitals participating in the PRHI. The group's leaders also explained regionwide efforts to improve outcomes for patients undergoing cardiac surgery and repeat Caesarean sections.
"They are getting a lot of learning in one day," said Ian Rawson, president of the Hospital Council of Western Pennsylvania, after spending part of the day with the group. "I think it is an unparalleled opportunity for hospitals to share something that is going well."