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2 Investigators, BGA: Wrongful Death Settlements At Government Hospitals Costing Taxpayers

(CBS) -- Hospitals supported by taxpayers have paid out more than $180 million in Illinois for wrongful death cases -- deaths that could have been prevented.

That's the finding of a CBS 2 and Better government Association review of 184 patient deaths over the last ten years and that's a conservative figure. It's estimated that more than a hundred thousand people nationally die each year because of hospital mistakes. Some families never even know about it, others are left with painful questions for hospital doctors.

"One of the questions that I had was how could this happen?" recalled Robert Malizzo.

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Better Government Association logo. (Credit: BGA)

How could his 39-year-old daughter Michelle Ballog be over sedated and then not properly resuscitated after her heart stopped during a diagnostic liver procedure?

"No one checked for a heartbeat. They were looking at a TV monitor showing electric impulses not a heartbeat."

The Ballog family's case against the University of Illinois Medical Center was one of 35 wrongful death lawsuits for which the board of trustees paid $64.2 million over the last ten years.

The Ballog case settled for $9 million after her parents had some candid conversations with the hospital's safety director telling him, "We put her life in your hands and you failed us. And he agreed, he said, "Yes we did we failed you and we're sorry."

Robert and Barbara Malizzo were impressed that the hospital explained to them what happened and agreed to serve as lay members on the University of Illinois Medical Center's Safety Committee.

"I do it to see if we can help make some changes," said Barbara Malizzo.

At Cook County hospitals there have been 79 wrongful death lawsuits with payouts totaling $93.2 million dollars.

The largest settlement was $10 million to the family of Dorota Spyrka. Spyrka was treated for a clot in her pulmonary artery.

"Bottom line there was a massive miscommunication with the staff that was taking care of Dorota," said attorney Jim Ball who sued the county for the Spyrka's family.

Ball says her doctors ordered Heparin, an anti-coagulant, to be given to Spyrka until her clotting levels came down to normal.

"Where this went wrong was a first year intern wrote an order discontinuing the Heparin," Ball said. "The clot reformed and about 11 hours later she died from a massive pulmonary embolism."

The Veterans Administration has paid $19.3 million for 53 wrongful death cases against five VA hospitals in Illinois, most of them at the downstate Marion medical center.

Robert Earl Shank was one them. He went to the hospital to have his gall bladder removed. Attorney Stanley Heller says at some point the surgeon apparently nicked a blood vessel.

"He ran into bleeding, but didn't control the bleeding," Heller said. "Ultimately he bled to death."
The VA settled the lawsuit for a million dollars.

The VA's Inspector General reviewed 29 deaths following surgeries at the Marion VA Hospital in the 2007 fiscal year. In 2008 the Inspector General's report cited many quality problems and described the surgical department as "disarray." The Veterans administration paid $8.5 million for 31 wrongful death cases at the Marion Facility since 2004.

"Taxpayers shouldn't be paying for these types of mistakes," said Robert Reed, Head of Investigations for the Better Government Association.

"The hospitals should be doing everything in their power to make sure these deaths, which are preventable, are prevented."

Spokesmen for all three hospital systems say they are trying to do just that and have reduced the number of fatal mistakes and hospital errors.

They say quality review officers and safety committees review mistakes that do happen and the numbers are small compared to the number of procedures they do.

In a written statement Donald H. Hutson, Director of the Marion VA Medical Center, said: "The Marion VA Medical Center has implemented many strong practices which include a more rigorous quality.

Management review program and enhanced oversight of services. Additional staff have been hired for key areas such as Quality Management, Surgery, Pharmacy, Respiratory Therapy, and Radiology. The physician privileging process has also been enhanced."

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