Avoidable Sepsis Infections Send Thousands to Gruesome Deaths
No one tracks sepsis cases closely enough to know how often these severe infections turn fatal, but the toll is enormous.
Source: by Fred Schulte, Elizabeth Lucas, Kaiser Health News and Joe Mahr, Chicago Tribune / Sep. 6, 2018
Shana Dorsey first caught sight of the purplish wound on her father’s lower back as he lay in a suburban Chicago hospital bed a few weeks before his death.
Her father, Willie Jackson, had grimaced as nursing aides turned his frail body, exposing the deep skin ulcer, also known as a pressure sore or bedsore.
“That was truly the first time I saw how much pain my dad was in,” Dorsey said.
The staff at Lakeview Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, she said, never told her the seriousness of the pressure sore, which led to sepsis, a severe infection that can quickly turn deadly if not cared for properly. While a resident of Lakeview and another area nursing home, Jackson required several trips to hospitals for intravenous antibiotics and other sepsis care, including painful surgeries to cut away dead skin around the wound, court records show.
Dorsey is suing the nursing center for negligence and wrongful death in caring for her dad, who died at age 85 in March 2014. Citing medical privacy laws, Lakeview administrator Nichole Lockett declined to comment on Jackson’s care. In a court filing, the nursing home denied wrongdoing.
The case, pending in Cook County Circuit Court, is one of thousands across the country that allege enfeebled nursing home patients endured stressful, sometimes painful, hospital treatments for sepsis that many of the lawsuits claim never should have happened.
Year after year, nursing homes around the country have failed to prevent bedsores and other infections that can lead to sepsis, an investigation by Kaiser Health News and the Chicago Tribune has found.
No one tracks sepsis cases closely enough to know how many times these infections turn fatal.
However, a federal report has found that care related to sepsis was the most common reason given for transfers of nursing home residents to hospitals and noted that such cases ended in death “much more often” than hospitalizations for other conditions.
A special analysis conducted for KHN by Definitive Healthcare, a private health care data firm, also suggests that the toll — human and financial — from such cases is huge.
Examining data related to nursing home residents who were transferred to hospitals and later died, the firm found that 25,000 a year suffered from sepsis, among other conditions. Their treatment costs Medicare more than $2 billion annually, according to Medicare billings from 2012 through 2016 analyzed by Definitive Healthcare.
In Illinois, about 6,000 nursing home residents a year who were hospitalized had sepsis, and 1 in 5 didn’t survive, according to Definitive’s analysis.
“This is an enormous public health problem for the United States,” said Dr. Steven Simpson, a professor of medicine at the University of Kansas and a sepsis expert. “People don’t go to a nursing home so they can get sepsis and die. That is what is happening a lot.”
The costs of all that treatment are enormous. Court records show that Willie Jackson’s hospital stays toward the end of his life cost Medicare more than $414,000. Medicare pays Illinois hospitals more than $100 million a year for treatment of nursing home residents for sepsis, mostly from Chicago-area facilities, according to the Medicare claims analysis.
Sepsis is a bloodstream infection that can develop in bedridden patients with pneumonia, urinary tract infections and other conditions, such as pressure sores. Mindful of the dangers, patient safety groups consider late-stage pressure sores to be a “never” event because they largely can be prevented by turning immobile people every two hours and by taking other precautions. Federal regulations also require nursing homes to adopt strict infection-control standards to minimize harm.
Yet the failures that can produce sepsis persist and are widespread in America’s nursing homes, according to data on state inspections kept by the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Many of the lawsuits allege that bedsores and other common infections have caused serious harm or death. The outcome of these cases is not clear, because most are settled and the terms kept confidential.
Cook County, where the private legal community is known to take an aggressive approach to nursing homes, has more of these suits than any other metro area in the U.S., KHN and the Tribune found by reviewing court data.
State inspectors also cite thousands of homes nationally for shortcomings that have the potential to cause harm. Inspections data kept by CMS show that since 2015 94 percent of homes operating in Illinois have had at least one citation for conditions that increase the risk of infection. These citations include care related to bedsores, catheters, feeding tubes and the home’s overall infection-control program.
“Little infections turn to big infections and kill people in nursing homes,” said William Dean, a Miami lawyer with more than two decades of experience suing nursing homes on behalf of patients and their families.
Much of the blame, regulators and patient advocates say, lies in poor staffing levels. Too few nurses or medical aides raises the risks of a range of safety problems, from falls to bedsores and infections that may progress to sepsis or an even more serious condition, septic shock, which causes blood pressure to plummet and organs to shut down.
Staffing levels for nurses and aides in Illinois nursing homes are among the lowest in the country. In the six-county Chicago area, 78 percent of the facilities’ staffing levels fall below the national average, according to government data analyzed by KHN.
Matt Hartman, executive director of the Illinois Health Care Association, which represents more than 500 nursing homes, acknowledged low staffing is a problem that diminishes the quality of nursing care.
Hartman blamed the state’s Medicaid payment rates for nursing homes — about $151 a day per patient on average — which he said is lower than most other states. Medicaid makes up about 70 percent of the revenue at many homes, he said.
Last October, CC Care LLC, an Illinois nursing home group that specializes in treating mentally ill patients on Medicaid, filed for bankruptcy, arguing that the state’s “financial troubles have been disastrous for all nursing homes.”
In a July court filing, CC Care creditors’ committee argued that the company couldn’t stay afloat relying on Illinois Medicaid payments, which it called “slow, erratic and significantly less than what we are due.”
Pat Comstock, executive director of the Health Care Council of Illinois, said nursing homes she represents “are operating in an increasingly difficult environment in Illinois, yet they continue to prioritize delivering the best care possible to residents in a safe and secure setting.”
A FESTERING COMPLAINT
Shana Dorsey remembers her father as a quiet but friendly man. He worked as a uniformed bank security guard and picked up extra cash fixing neighbors’ cars in an empty lot adjacent to his West Side apartment building. He was a stickler for detail, who relished teaching his granddaughter the state capitals and was always ready to lend a hand to help his daughter, who now works for a Chicago property management firm.
But age and declining health caught up with the Army veteran, who by his early 80s began to exhibit signs of dementia and moved into an assisted living apartment.
Dorsey knew her dad needed more specialized care when she found him sitting in his favorite peach recliner in his apartment, unable to get up and incontinent.
He required more intense medical and personal care as his kidney disease worsened and he became more confused, medical records show. In his last 18 months of life, he cycled in and out of hospitals eight times for treatment of septic bedsores and other infections, according to court records.
The Chicago law firm representing Dorsey, Levin & Perconti, provided KHN and the Tribune with medical records and additional court filings that cover Jackson’s care.