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More than 100 Wisconsin hospitals have slashed health care costs by $45.6 million by reducing readmissions and controlling surgery-related infections in a special project, according the Wisconsin Hospital Association.

The WHA’s new report, released today, includes a shout-out to Vernon Memorial Healthcare in Viroqua.

The critical-access hospital, “which has over 500 hip and knee surgeries per year, has not had an infection since November 2012,” the report notes. “They achieved this impressive result through rigorous attention to use of best practice preventive measures, including a comprehensive hand hygiene campaign.”

Vernon Memorial CEO Kyle Bakkum said the hygiene protocol is so exhaustive that it not only includes training but also encourages employees to monitor each other.

“We know when we reduce infections and readmissions, it drives down the costs of health care,” Bakkum said.

Although the report doesn’t chronicle costs or savings for individual hospitals, it said the 108 hospitals involved in WHA’s Partners for Patients program reduced surgical site infections by 37 percent between January 2012 and July 2013.

That improved care for 223 patients and, based on the average $20,000 cost such an infection adds to a surgery, saved $4.56 million, the report said. Factoring in practices to thwart other hospital-associated infections, more than 1,000 patients who were at an increased risk of contracting an infection received better care at a cost savings of $10 million, the WHA said.

The report cited a 42 percent reduction in central line bloodstream infections, improving care for 311 patients and saving nearly $6 million.

The Partners for Patients project, in its second year, is in collaboration with the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid’s quest to improve health care while reducing patient costs.

Perhaps the most dramatic decrease came in readmissions. The average readmission costs $9,600, according to the association. Preventing 3,556 readmissions reduced health care costs in the hospitals by $34 million, the report said.

“When improvement work reduces hospital-associated infections and readmissions, it translates into cost savings, and that is a value for patients, employers and insurers,” said WHA President Steve Brenton.

Vernon Memorial’s Bakkum said the project promotes information exchanges among hospitals to share best practices.

“We’re no longer necessarily competitors but sharing information with each other,” he said.

Vernon Memorial is just one of several hospitals and clinics in western Wisconsin participating in the project. The others include Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, Black River Memorial Hospital in Black River Falls, Gundersen St. Joseph in Hillsboro, Prairie du Chien Memorial Hospital, Tomah Memorial Hospital and Gundersen Tri-County Memorial Hospital in Whitehall.

At Gundersen, Dr. Marilu Bintz said the report highlights the need for coordinated care involving patients.

Bintz, Gundersen’s medical vice president for quality and safety, said she didn’t have figures on money saved there.

“But it’s very clear on local and national levels that you save thousands and thousands of dollars on reducing those infections,” Bintz said.

“Central line blood infections are extremely dangerous,” she said. “We may be down to one or two a year — sometimes none.

“If you’re the patient who has avoided infections or readmissions, it means the world to you,” she said.

Gundersen has concentrated on surgical site infections after colon surgery, Bintz said, adding, “The rate has declined. It’s not where we want to be, but we’re on the right track.

“Our readmissions are consistently below national and state averages,” she said.

At Tomah Memorial, quality and compliance director Shelly Egstad said the project has solidified quality initiatives that were already in place.

“Our success story includes the fact that we had zero early elective deliveries and no catheter acquired urinary tract infections in 2012, while our readmissions rate was below the state average,” Egstad said.

Although Mayo Clinic Health System-Franciscan Healthcare is not part of the Partnership for Patients project, it is involved in the WHA’s Transforming Care at the Bedside, said Pauline Byom, Mayo-Franciscan’s quality director.

“None of this is new to us,” Byom said.

Mayo-Franciscan’s aseptic techniques and other practices have eliminated central-line associated bloodstream infections for years, Byom said.

Other outcomes the report cites:

  • 26 percent reduction in falls, safer care for 176 patients and savings of $429,750 between 2012 and 2013.
  • 78 percent reduction in early elective deliveries (before 39 weeks’ gestation), safer care for 291 infants and $211,922 in savings for 2012 and 2013.
  • Wisconsin is the third-best state for average net incentive/penalty payments in the Medicare Value-Based Purchasing program.

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