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Medicare won't cover hospitals' preventable errors

WASHINGTON -- In a significant policy change, Bush administration officials say that Medicare will no longer pay the extra costs of treating preventable errors, injuries, and infections that occur in hospitals, a move that could save thousands of lives and millions of dollars.

Private insurers are considering similar changes, which they said could multiply the savings and benefits for patients.

Consumer groups welcomed the change, set forth in rules to be published Wednesday. And while hospital executives endorsed the goal of patient safety, they said the policy would require them to collect large amounts of new data.

Under the new rules, Medicare will not pay hospitals for the costs of treating certain "conditions that could reasonably have been prevented." Among the conditions included are bedsores, or pressure ulcers; injuries caused by falls; and infections resulting from the prolonged use of catheters in blood vessels or the bladder.

In addition, Medicare says it will not pay for the treatment of "serious preventable events" like leaving a sponge or other object in a patient during surgery and providing a patient with incompatible blood or blood products.

The new policy -- one of several federal initiatives to improve care purchased by Medicare, at a cost of more than $400 billion a year -- is sending ripples through the healthcare industry. It also raises the possibility of changes in medical practice as doctors hew more closely to clinical guidelines and hospitals perform more tests to assess the condition of patients at the time of admission.

The Bush administration estimates the new policy will save Medicare $20 million a year. Other specialists say the savings could be greater.

The rules implement a directive from Congress included in a 2006 law. When the rules were proposed in May, consumer advocates said they feared that some hospitals might charge patients for costs that Medicare refused to pay.

But that is forbidden.