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Penn State Health halts liver transplants as national oversight body reviews program

by Charlotte Keith of Spotlight PA and Wyatt Massey of Spotlight PA State College |

Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
Photo Provided By Penn State Health

This story was produced by the State College regional bureau of Spotlight PA, an independent, nonpartisan newsroom dedicated to investigative and public-service journalism for Pennsylvania. Sign up for our north-central Pa. newsletter, Talk of the Town, at spotlightpa.org/newsletters/talkofthetown.

STATE COLLEGE — Penn State Health has stopped performing liver transplants at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center while a national oversight body conducts a performance review, a major setback for the hospital as it tries to rebuild a program that was sanctioned in 2022.

The liver transplant program could remain inactive for as long as a year, according to an internal document obtained by Spotlight PA. The suspension does not affect the hospital’s other transplant programs.

Penn State voluntarily inactivated its liver transplant program to address concerns about documentation and clinical processes, Barbara Schindo, a Penn State Health spokesperson, told Spotlight PA in an email. The health system has not received any notice of noncompliance, Schindo said.

The health system did not specify who reported the problems.

Schindo said Penn State Health notified 63 patients affected by the shutdown and is working to transfer their care to other liver transplant centers.

Representatives from the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), the private nonprofit that runs the U.S. transplant system as a federal contractor, will conduct a program review, Schindo said.

Anne Paschke, a spokesperson for the transplant system, the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), said that under the organization’s bylaws, it cannot comment on any potential or ongoing review of a member organization.

Of 798 transplant programs nationwide, 17, including Hershey Medical Center, are currently in a “long-term inactive” status, Paschke said, which means a transplant program is paused for 15 or more consecutive days.

This is the second time in just over two years that Hershey Medical Center has agreed to halt liver transplants. The move comes just months after OPTN, the oversight body, restored the program to good standing.

In April 2022, the hospital agreed to suspend its liver and kidney transplant programs while a “third-party” conducted an “extensive review,” Schindo told PennLive. In May 2022, an inspection by the state health department found a range of problems, PennLive reported in August 2022.

Inspectors found that staff failed to analyze post-transplant problems for trends, did not notify the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services that key staff, including surgeons, had changed, and failed to properly inform some patients of potential surgery complications or that some organs were considered high-risk.

Later that year, OPTN declared the hospital a “member not in good standing,” citing reports of surgical complications, concerns over the kidney and liver transplant programs’ adherence to national requirements, and “a culture of retaliation for reporting potential problems,” among other issues. The designation is intended to “provide public notice” that a hospital has committed a “serious violation” of the organization’s policies or bylaws, or demonstrated “a serious lapse in patient safety or quality of care,” the organization’s board said.

It was the first time since 2006 that OPTN had declared a hospital “not in good standing.”

In the wake of the inactivation, Penn State Health promised to rebuild.

Last March, the health system announced it had overhauled administrative procedures, updated its surgical equipment, and recruited three top surgeons to join the kidney and liver transplant programs.

“We voluntarily inactivated our program in April 2022 to improve it, and we’ve since built the abdominal transplant program the people of central Pennsylvania deserve,” Deborah Addo, the health system’s chief operating officer, said in a news release at the time.

OPTN restored the hospital’s member privileges in December 2023, saying the program had addressed the earlier concerns.

Since restarting kidney and liver transplants, the health system has been regularly submitting data and other information to UNOS, Schindo said. Penn State’s heart, bone marrow, and kidney transplant programs are operating as usual, Schindo told Spotlight PA.

“Our health system will continue working with UNOS to ensure that our liver transplant program meets the patients’ needs as effectively and safely as possible,” Schindo said.

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