McLEAN, Va. - The Virginia Department of Health will no longer provide public access to its hospital complaint investigations after an Associated Press story found inconsistencies in the probe of a woman's care at Inova Fairfax Hospital.
The change in policy was ordered by the federal agency that oversees Medicare and Medicaid, said Erik Bodin, director of the department's division of licensure and certification.
When Medicare patients file complaints about the treatment they received at a hospital, state regulators conduct investigations under a contract with that federal agency, the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Officials with CMS declined to comment on the records change.
While officials wouldn't comment on the reason for the change, it comes after an Associated Press story in October showed that the state released two different versions of a report that investigated the care of an Inova patient, Sharon Van Putten, who died shortly after leaving the hospital.
A report given to the family largely exonerated the hospital, while a report obtained by AP under the state's Freedom of Information Act substantiated most of the family's allegations.
Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, said she could not recall a similar situation where a federal agency ordered Virginia to stop releasing an entire class of documents. State law, she said, makes some documents exempt from release if a federal law prohibits it, but a federal agency's mere desire to keep records out of public view is insufficient, she said.
Van Putten was a Florida resident who was treated by the hospital while visiting family in northern Virginia. Her family alleges a slew of errors, including a botched back surgery that left her a paraplegic and illegal use of restraints for weeks that contributed to a bedsore so deep that it exposed the titanium implants in her spine. The family also alleges neglect that included a lack of any nutrition other than clear liquids for six days.
Inova has denied wrongdoing and said its care was appropriate. No action has been taken against the hospital.
The investigations of Van Putten's care have left the family even further outraged. In December, more than a year after the family filed its initial complaints, CMS said in a letter to them that it had "identified many troubling elements" in how the family's complaints were handled. CMS says it plans to conduct training of its state survey agencies, like the Virginia Department of Health, and its own regional offices in response.
But the letter offers few specifics, and CMS officials declined to comment on the letter.
The Van Puttens say the letter from CMS raises more questions than it answers, especially considering that last month CMS wrote a letter to the Virginia Department of Health complimenting VDH on its handling of the Van Putten investigation, saying regulators were "very proactive and responsive to these investigation requests."
Promises by CMS officials to the Van Puttens to address their concerns have been ignored, the family said.
"It feels like a cover-up," said Sharon Van Putten's daughter, Vicki Ruiter of Centreville.
Health documents can also be exempt from release if they would invade a patient's privacy, but the hospital inspections produced by Virginia do not release any individual information about patients.
Rhyne said she becomes concerned when categories of documents that were previously publicly available suddenly become off limits.
"It immediately raises suspicions about what's being done and why," she said.
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