Wendy Simons, the chief of the state agency that investigates consumer complaints about hospitals, knows firsthand that they sometimes come up short on cleanliness.
Not long ago, when her daughter was entering a hospital for a procedure, Simons found a bathroom that didn't measure up.
"I cleaned it myself," said Simons, chief of the Bureau of Health Care Quality and Compliance. "I sure wasn't going to let my daughter use it like it was."
I went to talk last week with Simons, who ran assisted living centers in the private sector for 35 years before taking her government post two years ago, after the public response to last week's column on 72-year-old Ivan Fankuchen. The Marine Corps veteran said he didn't appreciate that his room during a recent stay at Summerlin Hospital was a breeding ground for infections, with filthy portable and permanent commodes and dirt and insects and dried food scraps part of the ambience.
Fankuchen's complaint and his charges were never disputed by Summerlin executives - they were sorry his stay didn't meet his expectations. But I received more than 40 phone calls and more than a dozen emails, most raising similar concerns.
In June, the Leapfrog Hospital Survey ranked Summerlin and Desert Springs Hospital among the worst in the nation when it came to rate of deaths from serious treatable complications after surgery - a problem worsened by hospital-acquired infections.
The lowest rate of deaths in the nation from complications after surgery was 48.6 per 1,000 patients and the highest, 167.33. Desert Springs' rate was 164.79 per 1,000 and Summerlin's, 160.47.
Southern Hills, the safest local hospital, still had a death rate double that of the U.S. hospital with the least number of deaths.
Simons, whose office is in Carson City, visited the bureau's office in Las Vegas Wednesday . She said it's critical that a patient, or his advocate, express concerns immediately to hospital administrators.
"Most of the time your concerns will be addressed immediately," she said.
If safety and cleanliness concerns are not addressed, then Simons said the bureau should be contacted while the patient's hospitalized. The local complaint phone number is 486-6515. Simons said the bureau often does a three-way call involving the patient or advocate, a hospital representative and a bureau representative "to get the issue resolved right then, when it does the most good."
Formal complaints, which can result in a hospital being assessed a monetary fine or having its license revoked, can be made by phone, by fax at 486-6520, online at http://health.nv.gov/HCQC.htm and by mail to 4220 S. Maryland Parkway, Suite 810, Building D, Las Vegas, NV 89119. Members of a 15-member staff investigate.
"We take complaints very seriously," said Simons, who noted that about 1,200 complaints are investigated annually, with a third resulting in action: "It's hard to investigate a complaint a year later. It's like calling police about a prowler. By the time they get there, the prowler's left. It's not that the prowler wasn't there, you just can't prove it."
It's probably not surprising that many hospitals are filthy. According to the American Hospital Association, hospitals have cut cleaning budgets by as much as 25 percent during the recession. And surveys show many hospitals spend only 18 minutes cleaning a patient's room, far below the nearly optimal 30 minutes.
With filth contributing to an Institute of Medicine-estimated 100,000 patient deaths a year from hospital infections, the equivalent of a jumbo jet going down every day, you'd think hospital executives would be axed or receiving major pay cuts.
Not so. Alan Miller, CEO of King of Prussia, Pa.-based Universal Health Services, which oversees the Summerlin, Desert Springs, Centennial Hills, Spring Valley and Valley Hospitals in Las Vegas, saw his compensation jump from $9.85 million in 2010 to $12.5 million in 2011, according to documents filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
You've got to hand it to Miller. He may not know how to keep Summerlin Hospital clean, but he knows how to clean up at the pay window.
Contact reporter Paul Harasim at email@example.com or 702-387-2908.