State declines to investigate vast majority of hospital complaints
Illinois officials didn't look into 85 percent of the 560 hospital complaints received last year, even when the reports alleged violations such as patient abuse
Jeanine Thomas contracted an infection in her leg during ankle surgery at a Chicago hospital, causing septic shock and organ failure, she said. She became an advocate for hospital safety. “These complaints can reveal real problems," she said. "If the state doesn’t investigate, the problems will repeat themselves over and over.” (Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune)
How did Illinois officials respond? They declined to investigate.
At Adventist Bolingbrook Hospital, a patient was pricked by dirty needles, prompting preventive treatment for HIV.
State regulators chose not to pursue that case, too.
They also took a pass on allegations that a staffer at Streamwood Behavioral Health Center assaulted a patient, causing a possible spinal injury, and that a nurse misused an IV machine at Abraham Lincoln Memorial Hospital, leading to a near fatal overdose, a Tribune investigation found.
The Illinois Department of Public Health declined to investigate 85 percent of the 560 hospital complaints it received last year, even when the reports alleged violations such as patient abuse and inadequate infection control, records show. Some allegations of serious harm or death were not pursued even though federal law requires that such claims be investigated within 48 hours.
"These are serious complaints," said Lisa McGiffert, director of the national Consumers Union Safe Patient Project. "If the regulatory system is collecting these complaints and not responding, that is a massive failure of oversight."
Complaints can reveal crucial systemic problems, experts say. And when it finds violations, the state can order hospitals to make corrections.
But Illinois regulators say they don't have the funding to investigate. And the hospital industry has fought proposals to pay for the investigations with fees that amount to pennies a day per hospital bed.
Complaints about the same hospital can pile up without any investigations, according to thousands of records reviewed by the Tribune.
During a six-week period last fall, regulators received four complaints alleging that patients at Greater Peoria Specialty Hospital were being left in their feces and that sores caused by neglect were becoming infected.
One complaint came from a hospital staffer who said patients "are not given appropriate care … not bathed or given oral care … have wounds from not being turned and changed."
Public health department spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said the department works to address serious allegations.
But it "does not have the funding needed to investigate complaints, to conduct routine hospital surveys and ensure the health and safety of patients," she said in an email.
Feds rarely investigate
The state agency spent $498,000 on hospital oversight in 2010 — half from the federal government, half in state matching funds.
Federal officials said they would have investigated some of the complaints highlighted by the Tribune had the state brought them to their attention.
"We are working with the state agency to improve the complaint triage process going forward," said Elizabeth Surgener, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
But it's rare for the federal agency to investigate on its own. And it has declined to fund some investigations sought by state regulators, records show.