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Originally published October 25, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified October 25, 2007 at 2:28 AM

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Hospitals backtrack on keeping mistakes secret

The Washington State Hospital Association has changed its stance on the public disclosure of hospitals' preventable mistakes, saying now...

Seattle Times health reporter

The Washington State Hospital Association has changed its stance on the public disclosure of hospitals' preventable mistakes, saying now that it won't try to block the release of information about errors such as leaving instruments inside patients and performing the wrong operations.

After a story Tuesday in The Seattle Times highlighted the association's legal efforts to prevent such disclosures, the phones started ringing, association spokeswoman Cassie Sauer said.

"Your article made us realize that people really want the information," she said. "There's been a lot of reaction to this, more than we expected."

But for now, perhaps even through the next legislative session, the state Health Department will withhold the records. And a leading critic of the association's previous attempts to block disclosure remained skeptical about its apparent turnaround.

"You know what they say: 'Watch the hands, not the mouth,' " said state Rep. Tom Campbell, R-Roy, who has led fights to improve hospital disclosures.

At issue is the state Department of Health's practice since 2000 of releasing statistics on so-called "adverse events," such as operating on the wrong patients and serious medication errors. The agency recently stopped releasing the data because the hospital association argued that a new state law blocked such hospital-specific disclosure.

The association argued releasing the information was "not that useful" and unfairly put too much blame on certain hospitals without proper explanation. Campbell accused the association of "backdoor" tricks to evade public scrutiny.

Since the Tuesday story in The Times, Sauer said, the association has decided to support disclosing the reports. But it wants future reports to also include "context" about each hospital, she said. That would include information such as the total number of patients each hospital treats, whether they are older or sicker than average, the hospital's efforts to discover the causes of the problems and how it plans to prevent future incidents.

But until the next legislative session, the information may remain sealed by the state. The Health Department says the hospital association's earlier legal interpretation may be correct — the current law appears to prevent disclosure. The department has asked for a formal legal interpretation.

Next session the association will work with lawmakers to make a new law, Sauer said.

But Campbell, who sponsored the first law in 2000 that began the disclosure in the first place, said he still feels burned by the association.

"I don't trust them," he said Wednesday. "This has been a real eye-opener for me."

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Campbell said he supports the association's idea of including contextual statistics in the public reports, but he would object if assembling that information in any way delayed the disclosure. "I'm an expert at dealing with people who want to move the goal posts," he said.

Sauer said she realizes that Campbell and other lawmakers may doubt the association's intentions. Nonetheless, she said, "we have a real strong commitment to transparency.

"We continue to think [the disclosure of reports] isn't that useful, but if people want it, we don't want to block it."

Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or costrom@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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