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House Republicans vote to end children’s heart surgery oversight

Gov. Ron DeSantis last year signed into law a bill that put an advisory panel into statute and expanded its responsibilities. The proposal came after a Tampa Bay Times investigation reported high mortality rates for pediatric heart surgery patients at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.
Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, San Petersburg.
Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, San Petersburg.

TALLAHASSEE — A panel that lets physician experts visit struggling pediatric heart surgery programs should be no more, House Republicans say.

The Florida House Tuesday voted 70-45 on a bill that, among other panels and advisory boards, strips the “Pediatric Cardiac Technical Advisory Panel” from statute.

In June 2019, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed into law a bill that put the advisory panel into statute and expanded its responsibilities. The proposal came after a Tampa Bay Times investigation reported that the mortality rate for pediatric heart surgery patients at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg reached nearly 10% in 2017.

Related: Heartbroken: A Tampa Bay Times investigation

The Times also found that hospital leaders had disregarded medical staff members’ concerns about surgical problems as early as 2015. The hospital stopped performing heart surgeries late last year, and six executives resigned shortly after the Times story was published.

Before the panel was created, only state inspectors could make site visits to the 10 children’s heart surgery programs across the state. The new panel appointed 23 physicians to visit the programs, review death reports, and develop a public reporting mechanism for children’s heart surgery results.

Dr. David Nykanen, the chairman of the advisory panel and a pediatric cardiologist at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, said the panel “is just getting started.”

The first public workshop of the panel’s proposed rules will take place Thursday and program visits have not yet begun. The panel is still in talks with vendors to create the public reporting tool, which does not yet exist.

Nykanen said while “there’s an attitude” to deregulate oversight groups like his, invasive and highly specialized procedures like pediatric heart surgery require extra care.

“For the good of the children in the state, we need some degree of oversight,” he said.

Bill sponsor Rep. Anthony Rodriguez, R-Miami, said the panel “has gone ahead and fulfilled their duties, which is why they are no longer necessary.”

“This advisory board was put into law to make recommendations to AHCA,” Rodriguez said, referring to the Agency for Health Care Administration. “Their job was never intended to police the program or provide supervision.”

Some Democrats pushed back, questioning whether Rodriguez was accurate in saying the board is inactive or unnecessary.

“It was just last session that we unanimously passed [the bill] that expanded the role of the panel, required it to do several more things,” said Rep. Margaret Good, D-Sarasota. “They have not yet finished that work.”

Good noted that the panel just met earlier in February, and is currently working on recommendations to AHCA and developing new programs.

“I don’t think we are at a point where it is unnecessary to do this kind of work any longer,” she said. ”The panel is active and is doing the work the Legislature has asked it to do.”

Rep. Ben Diamond, a St. Petersburg Democrat, said lawmakers should err on the side of additional oversight, especially given the issues at All Children’s.

“This issue was a very tragic issue for all the families involved and also for our community and our state,” he said.

Rodriguez responded by saying the panel “fulfilled all the work they were established to do.”

Rep. Cary Pigman, R-Avon Park, said in his mind, the committee was asked to come up with suggestions “and they’ve done so.”

“Their duty as a creature of statute is satisfied,” he said. “This is entirely responsible ... if we discover that the rules established failed to solve a problem, we have in our authority to reform a new advisory panel.”

While the amendment has support in the House, Senators say it will likely have less support in the upper chamber.

Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican who championed the panel’s creation last year, said he does not support the legislation and that the House should not lose sight of the reason the panel existed in the first place.

“I know the House doesn’t like regulation, but we have to remind them: babies died,” he said. “Do they remember that? Needles were left in baby hearts the size of a small grape ... I will continue to fight for [the panel’s] existence and work to save some babies.”

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