Albany Medical Center suspends heart transplant program

Albany Medical Center will deactivate its heart transplant program March 6 for one year to evaluate
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Albany Medical Center will deactivate its heart transplant program March 6 for one year to evaluate why it did not perform enough procedures to meet national standards, a hospital spokeswoman said.

“This is not a quality of care issue, this is not a money issue. It is a volume issue,” said spokeswoman Nicole Pitaniello.

Albany Medical Center’s program performed one heart transplant in 2008 when the national standard should be one every three months, Pitaniello said. Between 2005 and 2008, the program conducted 18 transplants, she said.

The United Network for Organ Sharing set the standard last year, she said. UNOS is a non-profit, scientific and educational organization that maintains the organ transplant waiting list for the entire nation. It is responsible for the allocation of organs to the sickest patients on the waiting list.

Albany Medical Center will maintain its standing with UNOS during the deactivation period, Pitaniello said. Pitaniello said the deactivation affects only the organ transplant component of the program. The program costs the hospital approximately $1 million annually to operate.

No staff will be laid off, Pitaniello said. Albany Medical Center will still provide medical care to heart transplant patients and it will still operate its kidney and pancreas transplant programs, she said. “This period is an opportunity to step back and assess the need and to try and understand the volume issue,” Pitaniello said.

Three people are on the waiting list for a heart transplant, Pitaniello said. If an organ becomes available before March 6, Albany Medical Center will perform the procedure. After that date, patients will be sent to another hospital.

Pitaniello cited several reasons for the decline in transplants at Albany Medical Center’s program. She said heart transplants have declined nationwide, possibly due to advances in treatment options, and that the hospital was unable to obtain certification from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

CMMS administers the federal Medicare program, a health program for people over age 65, and works with states to administer Medicaid, a health program for low-income people.

CMMS also uses volume as a criteria for certification, requiring 12 heart transplants per year. Without certification, certain health insurance providers would not pay for heart transplant procedures at Albany Medical Center, she said, and these people ended up going to CMMS-certified transplant facilities. There are five other transplant centers in New York and one as close as Boston.

Albany Medical Center opened the heart transplant program with great fanfare in 2000, becoming the region’s first-ever transplant center. The plan was to perform 21 heart transplants by the third year. By 2003, it had actually performed 82 heart transplants.

However, in late 2003, the program faced serious jeopardy after a UNOS audit faulted the hospital’s policies and protocols for determining who receives a transplant.

The state Department of Health later fined the hospital $18,000 for nine violations, which included the finding that one of the transplant doctors, Dr. Charles Canver, submitted inaccurate patient information to UNOS to justify a higher priority than warranted on the UNOS transplant waiting list.

The state investigation found 45 heart transplant patients at Albany Medical Center were given higher priority status on the organ transplant waiting list based on the inaccurate information. The state also found that in five cases the hospital falsely reported to UNOS that the patients would die within a week without a heart transplant.

Albany Medical Center suspended both Canver and a second program doctor, Dr. Lawrence Zisman, and closed the program for a year. The hospital’s executive committee later cleared Zisman of wrongdoing, but he did not return to the heart transplant program. Canver denied any wrongdoing and later sued the hospital. The status of his suit is unknown.

Categories: Schenectady County

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