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Kentucky hospital settles lawsuit over pediatric program

By Elizabeth Cohen, Senior Medical Correspondent
updated 1:05 PM EDT, Thu September 26, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • University of Kentucky settles case over release of safety data
  • Kentucky's attorney general asked hospital to release program's mortality rate
  • Hospital declined, saying that doing so would violate privacy laws
  • Mortality data has since been released, but not documents relating to evaluation of program

(CNN) -- The University of Kentucky has settled its case with the state over the release of safety data for its embattled pediatric heart surgery program, which was closed last year following patient deaths.

The dispute stems from a request last year by a local radio reporter for information about the program. The university declined to give that information, citing patient privacy laws, but then released it August 9 when a CNN investigation caused an uproar among parents of children with congenital heart disease.

"We are pleased that the litigation has been resolved," said university spokesman Jay Blanton. "The university was not put in the position of having to disclose patient and family information that would violate either peer review or privacy laws -- both of which are protected by federal laws."

The Kentucky attorney general got involved in December when the university declined to provide the safety data requested by Brenna Angel, then a radio reporter for WUKY. The attorney general asked the university to make the information public, but the university declined, and sued Angel in order to keep it private.

After the CNN report, the university revealed that the pediatric heart program had a higher mortality rate than the national average.

The university still hasn't released all the information Angel had asked for under the state's open records law, but she issued a statement last week saying she had agreed to a dismissal of the case.

"UK's release of its mortality rates in the pediatric cardiothoracic surgery program has achieved in large part my purpose for filing the open records request," wrote Angel, who now works in the Lexington mayor's office. "Families who are entrusting their children to UK Healthcare now have access to this type of information."

Among the pieces of information Angel asked for that still have not been released are documents relating to the evaluation and accreditation of the pediatric heart program and the date of the last surgery completed by the university's chief heart surgeon, who has since resigned.

"The University is not required to disclose any documents, remaining mortality statistics (which are protected by federal law), or any dates," William Thro, University of Kentucky general counsel, wrote to the board of trustees on August 16, adding, "We could see further litigation involving other media outlets."

The university is planning to reopen its pediatric heart surgery program after conducting a review, which it anticipates will be completed in the next few weeks, according to Blanton, the UK spokesman.

"When the review is completed, we will release as much of the final report as federal and state law allow," he said, adding that the report will be "focused most intently on how best to move forward than as a retrospective examination."

Tabitha Rainey, whose infant son, Waylon, went into heart failure after having surgery at UK, said she's concerned the university will keep crucial parts of the review a secret.

"They've used federal and state laws before when they didn't want to give statistics, so what's to say they won't do that again?" she said.

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