Health scare at surgical center raises questions about safety, oversight

BY Andrew Schmertz, Correspondent |

So far, there are no reported cases of any patients of HealthPlus Surgery Center contracting a bloodborne illness due to poor procedures in sterilizing and cleaning surgical instruments.

In a letter to more than 3,700 patients, HealthPlus in Saddle Brook urged anyone who had surgery between Jan. 1 and Sept. 7 to be tested for HIV and hepatitis, though the risk of infection is considered low.

The incident has raised questions about the safety and oversight of the stand-alone, same-day surgery business.

The Department of Health says there are more than 300 ambulatory surgery centers in New Jersey, among the highest per capita in the nation. Most are owned by doctors, some in partnership with local hospitals.

The trend to performing surgeries outside the hospital has been growing for some time. The national organization that represents many of the centers says that the centers can provide more timely surgeries and better personalized care.

The Ambulatory Surgery Center Association says the centers provide health care savings of $38 billion a year and Medicare savings of $2.3 billion. The centers reportedly receive more than $4 billion a year from Medicare.

A report from Kaiser Health News, an arm of the Kaiser Family Foundation, raised concern about the type of procedures performed at surgery centers. The study found that the centers are performing higher risk, and better paying, surgeries that are usually performed in a hospital. Medicare does require centers to have emergency services lined up at local hospitals, but those can be miles away.

And the New Jersey Healthcare Quality Institute says, “There is practically no independent, consumer-friendly data about the safety and quality of care in these settings …”

According the Jeff Shanton, the head of the New Jersey Association of Ambulatory Surgery Centers, the centers, “ … adhere to the same stringent standards as other healthcare settings under the oversight of the New Jersey Department of Health and other regulatory and accrediting bodies.”

Centers with multiple operating rooms are subject to unannounced inspections by the state. Next year, an independent hospital watchdog group, Leapfrog, will begin collecting data from surgery centers which voluntarily provide it.

As for HealthPlus, the center says it has hired new staff, improved training, and implemented new controls to make sure the lapses in safety don’t happen again.