It’s difficult to understand why Rapid City Regional Hospital can’t clean up its lingering medical waste problem in a more expeditious manner. It would seem that concerns raised months ago by the city and federal government would have been sufficient to resolve a public health issue.
On Sunday, the Journal reported that since October 2016 Regional Health has been mixing its medical waste in with trash destined for Rapid City’s landfill where employees have the dubious task of plucking bags with blood, tissue, syringes, urine and other material from every single load, according to the city.
“We know that Regional’s making efforts to correct this,” Dale Tech, Rapid City’s public works director, told the Journal. “However, what we’ve seen in their weekly trips to us, it really hasn’t changed.”
Despite Regional’s repeated reassurances that it is diligently working to correct a problem that doesn’t appear inherently complicated, it is making little headway. Furthermore, if the trash problem isn’t cleaned up, the consequences could impact the entire community and region.
According to the hospital’s compliance officer, the nonprofit could lose its certification to receive reimbursements from the Center for Medicaid Services, a significant source of income for Regional Health, which has clinics and hospitals in Sturgis, Spearfish, Deadwood, Belle Fourche, Hot Springs and Custer as well as Rapid City. In addition, the state could fine the city for violations if the landfill continues receiving medical waste.
It was the Center for Medicare & Medicaid Services that brought the problem to light after receiving reports on safety violations from the states. According to the website SAT, which analyzed the data, Rapid City Regional Hospital ranked second in the nation among teaching hospitals with 44 safety violations from 2014-17.
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After the Journal studied the report, reporter Christopher Vondracek contacted the South Dakota Department of Health and learned that its investigators cited Regional Health for six violations in 2017 for improper disposal of medical waste. When city officials were contacted, they said the landfill regularly receives medical waste even though they had been meeting for months with Regional.
"Mistakes can happen anywhere," the compliance officer told the Journal when explaining the challenges Regional faces with medical waste management.
While that may be the case at Regional, it isn't with other health care facilities, according to city and state officials. South Dakota's administrator for waste management said she was unaware of any other medical waste disposal problems in the state. The city said that was also the case in Rapid City.
Regional Health said it will continue to work to resolve the problem but offers no guarantees on when it will achieve what every other health care facility in the state has evidently accomplished — the safe and legal disposal of medical waste.
The city, which has taken a measured and certainly patient approach in this matter, should insist that Regional submit a plan and timeline to comply with city and state requirements. Regional, meanwhile, needs to assure the public that it has the made the proper disposal of medical waste a priority and then demonstrate that in a public way.
It's time for Regional to clean up its processes and procedures. It's in the best interests of the community it serves as well as their own.