04:13 - Source: CNN
Programs shutting down at St. Mary's Medical Center

Story highlights

Florida officials got rid of a set of hospital standards for children's heart surgery

Heart doctors say move came after hospital chain's contribution to Florida Republicans

Representatives from Tenet and governor's office deny any talk on removing standards

CNN —  

The state of Florida is putting thousands of children with heart defects at risk, a group of cardiac doctors say, because of a change in policy that came after Tenet Healthcare contributed $200,000 to Florida Republicans.

In a widely publicized investigation in June, CNN revealed that a program at a Tenet hospital in Florida had failed to live up to state quality standards for children’s heart surgery.

Less than two months later, the state decided to get rid of those standards.

That decision came after the giant for-profit hospital chain made contributions to Republican Gov. Rick Scott and his party that dwarfed those the company made to candidates or parties in other states.

“The whole situation is outrageous. It’s just outrageous,” said Louis St. Petery, a pediatric cardiologist in Tallahassee and former executive vice president of the Florida chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Doctors from around the state say the decision came right from the governor’s office. Representatives for Tenet and Scott deny conversations took place between them about getting rid of the standards.

’Poor public policy and poor politics’

In the fall, cardiac doctors implored the state of Florida to keep the hospital standards. The doctors argued that the quality standards have been in place since 1977, saved children’s lives and had become a model for other states.

When the standards were dropped anyway, the parents of four children with heart defects took the state to court.

Florida’s Department of Health said the quality standards had to go because the Legislature had never given permission to put them in place.

The standards have been in place and uncontested for 38 years.

“Our number one priority is the health of all Floridians, especially children,” Department of Health spokeswoman Mara Gambineri said in an email to CNN.

“We fully support best practices and high standards of care at Florida’s hospitals. As an executive branch agency, the department’s authority is limited to those functions statutorily delegated by the Legislature.”

Pediatric heart experts appointed by the state to look out for children with heart defects took exception.

At a hearing, Dr. William Blanchard, a pediatric cardiologist and former medical director of the Nemours Children’s Clinic in Pensacola, said getting rid of the standards is “both poor public policy and poor politics.”

Dr. Jeffrey Jacobs, a professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins, argued that the standards “are necessary to protect the vulnerable children with heart disease.”

’It is the failure of an entire team and system’

In 2014, Jacobs headed up the review by the state’s expert panel that showed many vital tests and services for children’s hearts were lacking at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach. He wrote that the Tenet-owned hospital was not able to maintain proficiency in heart operations on children.

“It is the failure of an entire team and system,” wrote Jacobs, chairman of the Society of Thoracic Surgeons National Database Workforce.

Jacobs recommended the hospital stop performing heart surgery on babies younger than 6 months.

Legally, the hospital could ignore his suggestion – and it did.

The state did not step in.

Babies continued to die at St. Mary’s.