Hospital System Heads to Court over Katrina Deaths

March 21, 2011  |  

(New York Times) — A jury trial set to open on Monday will weigh whether one of America’s largest health care corporations should be held accountable for deaths and injuries at a New Orleans hospital marooned by floodwaters after Hurricane Katrina.  The class-action suit is expected to highlight desperate e-mail exchanges, not previously made public, between the hospital and its corporate parent.  “Are you telling us we are on our own and you cannot help?” Sandra Cordray, a communications manager at Memorial Medical Center, which sheltered some 1,800 people, wrote to officials at the Tenet Healthcare Corporation’s Dallas headquarters after begging them for supplies and an airlift.

The suit, brought on behalf of people who were at the hospital during the disaster, alleges that insufficiencies in Memorial’s backup electrical system and failed plans for patient care and evacuation, among other factors, caused personal injury and death.  The complaint also focuses attention on the lack of comprehensive emergency preparedness requirements for the nation’s hospitals. Proposed regulations aimed at addressing “systemic gaps” identified after Katrina were scheduled for release by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in January, but have been delayed.President Obama’s budget proposal trims spending on a national hospital preparedness program by $42 million, or about 10 percent from current levels.  The bodies of 45 patients were discovered at Memorial Medical Center after the August 2005 storm, far more than at any other hospital, and some doctors subsequently acknowledged that they had injected patients with drugs to hasten their deaths. No criminal charges were brought. Last year, a relative of a patient who died filed a civil claim of euthanasia against a Memorial doctor. It was dismissed and is on appeal. Staff members at Memorial said they did their best in the face of inhuman conditions.

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