Health dangers

May 2009: Renown Health’s two Reno facilities were listed 20th and 23d in a ranking of Nevada’s large hospitals.

June 2009: Renown was fined $400 by state health officials for substandard post-op care.

July 2009: Acting on complaints from nurses, the Nevada Board of Nursing opened an investigation of Renown for endangering patients and nurses and violating labor laws.

These are not isolated problems. In restaurants around town, people can be heard talking about Renown problems in a way they do not discuss other health facilities. Everyone seems to have experienced—or know someone who has—sloppy care at Renown.

Once a noted public hospital called Washoe Medical Center, the main Renown facility has been in decline ever since it was sold to a private corporation.

We are hardly arguing that fines of $400 are inadequate. This is true, but larger fines will only push health costs up. What we are more concerned about is the political leadership that allows this kind of a state of affairs to come about. We hope the nursing board conducts a painstaking investigation, but what would be even better would be support from the state’s political leadership for the board and other health care regulators.

Gov. Jim Gibbons, in this as in so many areas, has failed to provide it.

During the hepatitis scandal in Las Vegas last year, when sloppy practices at two clinics led to at least eight cases of hepatitis, Gibbons dragged his feet in responding and then—after there was negative public reaction to his inaction—leaped into the fray without accomplishing much.

While health officials notified 40,000 people that they could have been exposed to deadly blood diseases, Gibbons minimized, belittled and trivialized. When more frequent clinic inspections than once every three years were proposed, he provided this immortal, laissez faire, 19th century, public-be-damned response:

“It’s premature for a change like that. … We do not have enough highway patrolmen to stop everybody who makes a mistake. We could inspect [surgical centers] annually and then pretty soon, have we done overkill?”

This was, it should be noted, the first most Nevadans knew of the state’s lackadaisical inspections schedules. (One facility went seven years without inspection.) Gibbons was arguing against an increased frequency of inspections that was still inadequate.

Little wonder Renown’s record has deteriorated. Its officials clearly heard the message from the government-hating governor that tough regulation would not be rigorously pursued by his administration.

When Gibbons became governor, businesses of all kinds—not just health care—enjoyed a business climate in which they were the least-taxed and least-regulated in the nation. Gibbons wants taxes lowered and regulation reduced. That philosophy may be acceptable in some fields of business, but it is dangerous in the health care industry.

His unwillingness to protect his fellow Nevadans from foreseeable health dangers is one more reason Gibbons is not up to the job of governor. The sooner someone else takes over state health care regulation and starts sending a different message, the better.