WASHINGTON – The House on Wednesday passed a bill to create a voluntary system for tracking medical errors, promising confidentiality to hospitals and doctors and assurances the information will not go to lawyers for use in malpractice suits.
The legislation, in the works for more than a year, "will help us move from a culture of blame to a culture of safety and ultimately increase patient safety," said Rep. Michael Bilarakis, R-Fla.
The measure passed in a 418-6 vote. On Thursday, the House was to consider separate legislation that would limit medical liability awards to patients.
Just last month, 17-year-old Jesica Santillan died after receiving a heart-lung transplant from a donor with the wrong blood type. Doctors at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina acknowledged the error, but a second transplant failed to save the girl.
"Unfortunately recent events have once again established a human face," Bilarakis said.
The Institute of Medicine has said that medical errors contribute to more than 1 million injuries and up to 98,000 deaths annually.
The bill establishes a voluntary error reporting system. The Health and Human Services secretary would certify a number of public and private organizations as patient safety organizations. Those groups will analyze data on medical errors, determine their causes and develop information to providers to help them implement changes that will improve patient safety.
The information provided to the database cannot be used in malpractice suits, although patients can still seek to get the information from a hospital and other sources.
The Senate has not acted on a similar measure. Senate Democrats are likely to try to ensure that patients can get the information from other sources. Some lawmakers also would like to see grants and other incentives to make sure that the recommendations made by the patient safety organizations are put in place.
Rep. Pete Stark, D-Calif., said the bill does not do any harm but "it doesn't do much good either."
"Without assurances that the system will use this newly protected data to improve practice, this lopsided exercise benefits the providers at the expense of patients, and the trade-off may not be worth it," Stark said. "I intend to vote for this bill. ... But we have missed an opportunity to do more."
Sally Greenberg, senior counsel for the group Consumers Union, said her organization had similar concerns.
"We're all for the federal government beginning to look at this epidemic of medical errors ... and reasons why medical errors happen so frequently and what systems can be put in place," Greenberg said. "What's missing from this is anything to actually provide incentives to put in place the kind of changes that are actually going to be needed. We don't really see any teeth to this."