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The news that tens of thousands of Americans are dying each year because of medical mistakes brought a sharp reaction from the White House Tuesday, CBS News White House Correspondent Bill Plante reports.

After meeting with health care professionals, the president ordered new safety precautions during a Rose Garden ceremony. "We have the finest health care system in the world, the best professionals to deliver that care," he said. "But too many families have been victims of medical errors that are avoidable; mistakes that are preventable; tragedies, therefore, that are unacceptable."

A recent study by the Institute of Medicine found that between 44,000 and 98,000 Americans a year die as a result of medical errors. The numbers makes the mistakes the eighth leading cause of death in the nation, ahead of highway accidents and AIDS.

Clinton added,"Now let me be clear about one thing. Ensuring patient safety is not about fixing blame. It's about fixing problems in an increasingly complex system."

He said he plans to propose the most money to date for medical accountability programs in his upcoming budget package. He did not give specifics, but a White House statement said Clinton plans a "multimillion-dollar investment in research programs to improve health care quality."

The president also issued an executive order directing an interagency task force to report back to him in 60 days on prevalent threats to patient safety. His overall plan includes:

  • Automated patient monitoring.
  • Steps to make sure that pharmacies and hospitals don't dispense the wrong medicines.
  • Development of plans for error reduction and better quality care from all private health plans serving federal employees.
  • Implementation of the latest error reduction techniques by federal agencies such as defense, health and human services and veterans affairs.
The president's action is part of a coordinated attack against medical mistakes. On Capitol Hill, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., is working on legislation with a similar goal.

I believe we can have a strong bipartisan bill in the next session," Kennedy, senior Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, told reporters Monday. He said Republican senators, including the committee's chairman, Sen. James Jeffords, R-Vt., and Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a heart surgeon from Tennessee, were interested in holding hearings on the matter.

Kennedy said both the legislation and the White House action would be based on the Institute of Medicine recommendations. He called the institute's goal of reducing medical errors by 50 percent "optimistic," but also said any legislation would adopt similar goals.

The institute said it found flaws in the way hospitals, clinics and pharmacies operate. Some problems are familiar, it suggested: Doctors' famously poor handwriting too often leaves pharmacists squinting at tiny paper prescriptions, and too many drug names sound alike

President Clinton's initiative includes a partnership with the American Hospital Association, which is asking its 5,000 members to produce a report on ways to cut down on errors.

Yet the federal government has not yet endorsed the medical panel's most controversial recommendation, a new federal agency to police medical errors. And -- though they didn't get a chance to say it when they appeared in the Rose Garden with the president -- health care providers want some protection from malpractice suits if they have to admit all their mistakes.

To ensure their own protection, CBS News Medical Consultant Dr. Bernadine Healy, the President of the Red Cross, says individuals can start by becoming better-informed patients. She explains, "We must know what medicines we're taking, what the dosages are. We must be able to read those prescriptions, and we must be challenging patients. Don't ever be afraid to ask why."

While she doubts the government "can police every medical interction," she applauds President Clinton's efforts to tackle the situation. She thinks the key lies in cooperation: "We all have to start with the same premise. That is, to a individual doctor, one preventable death is one too many."
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