1. Investigations

Extra oversight for children’s heart surgery signed into law

Outside physicians will now be allowed to inspect Florida heart surgery programs. The change follows problems at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.
Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, St. Petersburg. (SCOTT KEELER | Times)
Published Jun. 26

Children’s heart surgery departments across Florida will soon be subject to more oversight.

Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill late Tuesday that will let physician experts visit struggling programs and make recommendations for improvement.

Lawmakers proposed the measure after the Tampa Bay Times reported the mortality rate for pediatric heart surgery patients at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg reached nearly 10 percent in 2017. The rate was the highest any Florida hospital had seen in a decade.

[ Read the investigation: Johns Hopkins promised to elevate All Children’s Heart Institute. Then patients started to die at an alarming rate. ]

The Times also found that hospital leaders had disregarded medical staff members’ concerns about surgical problems as early as 2015.

All Children’s stopped performing heart surgeries late last year. Six top officials resigned shortly after the Times report published.

[ Read more: Top All Children’s executives resign following Times report on heart surgeries ]

“Now we will have the oversight that is necessary to make sure we have the best programs here in Florida,” said Sen. Gayle Harrell, a Stuart Republican who championed the bill.

“It will be a major change in how we do things,” she added.

The problems in the All Children’s Heart Institute had been whispered about in heart surgery circles for months before surgeries were stopped.

Last August — after the Times had reported the program was struggling, but before it revealed the increased mortality rate — the president of the Florida Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics wrote a letter to the state health care regulator, suggesting that a panel of doctors review the hospital’s surgeries. The agency’s head declined, saying the law didn’t allow it.

At the time, only state inspectors could make site visits. But the Times reported that they missed the heart program’s problems last year, even after promising a thorough investigation.

The bill signed into law Tuesday makes significant changes.

It lets a committee called the Pediatric Cardiac Technical Advisory Panel appoint physician experts to visit Florida’s 10 children’s heart surgery programs. They will be able to examine surgical results, review death reports, inspect the facilities and interview employees.

Dr. David Nykanen, the chairman of the advisory panel and a pediatric cardiologist at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando, called site visits “crucially important,” especially when departments are having problems.

He said visits could start within the next six months.

The children’s heart surgery measure passed as part of a larger proposal on health care (HB 843). The original bill on the subject was gutted in the House in late March.

Rep. Mike Beltran, the Lithia Republican who pushed the idea in the House, said he had worked hard to keep it alive. “I am very pleased that we were able to address the problems at All Children’s Hospital by enhancing the Pediatric Cardiac Technical Advisory Panel,” he said.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to requests for comment.

Many hospitals have struggled with pediatric heart surgery, a complicated specialty area that can be very lucrative.

In 2015, St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach closed its program amid media reports of a high mortality rate. Earlier this month, North Carolina Children’s Hospital said it would stop performing complex heart procedures. The announcement came after a New York Times investigation revealed that doctors had raised concerns about an increase in deaths.

For All Children’s, the fallout is ongoing.

A recent financial report showed that operating profit for the entire Johns Hopkins Health System fell $31.7 million in the first quarter of 2019 compared to the first quarter last year.

System leaders attributed the 70 percent decline “mainly” to problems in the All Children’s Heart Institute.

The hospital has not yet resumed heart surgeries. The results of a review commissioned by the Johns Hopkins Medicine board are expected soon.

[ Click here to read all of the Times’ coverage of All Children‘s Heart Institute ]


  1. Richard Zeitlin's clients include a PAC called the Children's Leukemia Support Network. About 86 percent of the money raised by the leukemia network went to Zeitlin’s companies. Facebook
    Las Vegas police also ‘looking into’ officer following Center for Public Integrity investigation.
  2. Michael Jenkins spent seven days at North Tampa Behavioral Health last July. Since then, he says his three children have been afraid he’ll leave and not come home. JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |   Times
    The patients have no choice, and the hospital is making millions.
  3. The Times’ reporting focused on how the hospital misuses Florida’s Baker Act.
  4. Seven-year-old Sriyam Sriadibhatla, who suffers from B acute lymphoblastic leukemia, waits for chemotherapy at Palm Beach Children's Hospital in West Palm Beach. Susan Stocker
    A look inside his machine, which turns charitable and political contributions into paydays.
  5. State regulators plan to fine Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg a total of more than $800,000. SCOTT KEELER  |  Times
    The planned $800,000 penalty is the latest fallout from problems in the hospital’s heart surgery department.
  6. Rosana Escamilla gives her daughter Alexcia tiny pieces of food to taste in their home in August 2018. Alexcia was left paralyzed after a heart surgery at John Hopkins All Children's Hospital. The details of her case match the public filing of a $12.75 million settlement the hospital recently signed with a family. EVE EDELHEIT  |  Tampa Bay Times
    The hospital has been negotiating with 11 families; some were struggling to afford the immense cost of care.
  7. EDMUND D. FOUNTAIN   |   Times 
(03/19/2009) In the woods not far from the current Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, up a dirt road, and up a hill is a small cemetery with 31 unmarked graves. Some of the White House Boys think the bodies of children murdered by guards at the Florida School for Boys are buried in the cemetery. Some of the graves can be attributed to students killed in a 1914 fire. Others can be attributed to a flu epidemic that swept the campus, but not all are accounted for.
    Read the classic Tampa Bay Times story that exposed a dark chapter of Florida history.
  8. Johns Hopkins All Children‘s Hospital. [CHRIS URSO   |   Times]
    It is the first settlement to become public. Others are expected.
  9. Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, St. Petersburg. [SCOTT KEELER   |   Times]
    The investigation was commissioned by the board of Johns Hopkins Medicine, which runs the hospital, following a Times investigation into fatal problems in All Children’s heart surgery unit.
  10. Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital, St. Petersburg.  (SCOTT KEELER   |   Times)
    Outside physicians will now be allowed to inspect Florida heart surgery programs. The change follows problems at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital.