Minnesota Becomes First State to Stop Billing After Medical Errors

Published December 1, 2007

Minnesota’s hospitals have formally agreed to stop charging patients and insurance companies for certain medical errors, such as operating on the wrong body part.

As a practical matter, it’s not really a huge change, hospital officials say. But Minnesota is the first state in the country to adopt such a policy, which applies to 27 types of mistakes or “adverse events” that are never supposed to occur in hospitals but sometimes do.

The policy, hammered out by Minnesota’s hospitals and health insurers, was announced in mid-September by Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) during a speech in Washington. “We hope more states follow our lead,” he said.

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In many hospitals, it’s routine to charge patients for treatment needed to correct medical mistakes, such as retrieving objects left behind in surgery.

But not in Minnesota, said Bruce Rueben, president of the Minnesota Hospital Association.

“We are way ahead of the rest of the country on this,” Rueben said. “We’re formalizing and saying out loud this is what hospitals are going to do and have been doing.”

New Practices

Rueben said many Minnesota hospitals have changed their billing practices since 2004, when a new state law required them to start reporting 27 types of mistakes or preventable conditions, known as “never events.”

They include such things as leaving in a needle or sponge during surgery; operating on the wrong body part or wrong patient; burns; falls; serious medication errors; or festering bedsores. Last year, Minnesota hospitals reported 154 such problems, mostly bedsores and surgical errors, out of 8 million patient visits, according to the Hospital Association.

‘Right Thing to Do’

Under the new policy, hospitals won’t charge for the follow-up care caused by such mistakes.

“It’s not a lot of money, but it’s the right thing to do,” said Eileen Smith, a spokeswoman for the Minnesota Council of Health Plans, which helped draft the policy.

Three years ago, HealthPartners announced it would no longer pay for such mistakes; last month, Medicare announced a similar policy for eight preventable conditions, such as hospital infections.

Rueben said some situations may not be so clear cut. But “once you determine it’s a preventable adverse event, well of course you can’t expect that the patient is going to pay for care,” he said. “Who could defend anything else?”

Maura Lerner ([email protected]) is a staff writer at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Copyright 2007 Star Tribune. First published September 19, 2007. Reprinted with permission.