Legislators disappointed in state's infections performance

Key California legislators who oversee the state’s health agencies said Wednesday that they are disappointed in how slowly the state Department of Public Health has acted on landmark laws designed to protect hospital patients from potentially deadly infections.

They said they are looking to the administration of Gov. Jerry Brown to make sure those laws are implemented swiftly. 

“With the new administration, I hope there is a greater sense of urgency.  Thousands of Californians die each year from preventable infections -- infections they get in the hospital,” said Democratic Sen. Elaine Alquist, author of a key 2008 law requiring the public reporting of hospital infections.  

“I would like the hospitals and DPH to look at [the 2008] law and say, this is the minimum we should do to protect lives. Hospitals should be a place where people heal, not where they get infections and die.”

State Health and Human Services Secretary Diana Dooley, a Brown appointee, said that she agrees with the legislators that hospital infections are a serious problem, and plans to make them a priority.  Dooley oversees the California Department of Public Health.

The legislators were reacting to a two-day series in the Sacramento Bee that probed problems and delays in how the state Department of Public Health enforced key patient laws passed in 2006 and 2008.   

The department’s first infection reports were flawed, and officials only now are beginning to write regulations to enforce those laws, a delay criticized by hospitals and consumers, the stories reported.  Hospital-acquired infections kill about 12,000 people in California each year, according to state estimates. 

The chairs of the Assembly and Senate health committees said they hope that Dr. Ronald W. Chapman, the governor’s choice to head the department, will move quickly to address the problem.

“Having read the articles and sharing the concern about hospital-acquired infections, I think it’s a serious public health issue,” said Democratic Assemblyman William Monning, who chairs the Assembly Committee on Health.  Monning said he would consider legislative hearings on the issue.

“What we need is the drumbeat of public engagement, oversight and leadership that compels people to share best practices and become partners in patient protection,” Monning said.

State Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-24th), chairman of the Senate Health Committee, said that he, too, is looking to the new administration to speed up enforcement of the infection measures.

“We are disappointed that implementation of these measures has been slow but I am hopeful that Dr. Chapman will recognize the benefit of these laws and will do everything in his power to make certain DPH implements them in a timely manner,” Hernandez said in a written statement.

Dooley said she meets regularly with Monning and Hernandez and welcomes their partnership to address the infection problem.

“I share their concern, and I share their commitment in moving forward to make reliable information available to the public and others,” said Dooley.  “The policy is to reduce preventable infections, and that is the policy we will enforce.”

Assemblyman Dr. Richard Pan (D-5th), a pediatrician who sits on the Assembly Health Committee, said a first step might be providing more resources to the Department of Public Health to assure that it produces high-quality data on the number and types of infections in California hospitals.

“We want to make sure that we’re measuring the right kind of data, and that it’s solid and useful so that people in the hospitals can use it to track results,” Pan said.

Alquist speculated that the data work mandated by her law—now produced by the Department of Public Health—might be done more efficiently by another state agency, the Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development, known as OSHPD.

“I do believe there is merit in having OSHPD do the analysis of the infection reports so that the data is more accessible to the public,” Alquist said in an emailed response to written questions.

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