Last year, federal officials notified University Medical Center that they had to pull the plug on Nevada's only kidney transplant program because of more than 40 deficiencies.
Now, less than eight months later, after pleas from Nevada's congressional delegation and hurried corrective administrative measures kept the then-undermanned program on life support, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services has fully recertified the UMC service, which carries out about 60 life-saving procedures each year.
"We've gone from a staff of four people and one surgeon to a 10-person staff with five surgeons," said Karen Watnem, administrator for the program. "The UMC administration has really worked to make this a success."
The seal of approval for UMC transplants did not surprise 40-year-old George McLaurin Jr., who received a kidney from his sister Valerie in February. Both brother and sister are in excellent condition today.
"We've had no setbacks at all," McLaurin said Monday. "Everything has gone perfectly."
McLaurin and his sister were benefactors of a UMC strategy announced in November that saw the hospital negotiate a one-year, nearly $1 million contract with four surgeons associated with the renowned University of Utah transplant program. The physicians work in Las Vegas on a rotating basis.
About 200 people are on the waiting list for a kidney transplant in Nevada
To continue its transplant program, UMC officials had to explain how surgical capabilities would be improved, develop an effective internal quality assessment and performance improvement program, and describe the program's chain of command.
UMC's transplant program only got a second chance at staying alive after the state's congressional delegation, including then Rep. Jon Porter, R-Nev., and Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., interceded with federal authorities. The legislators argued that the problems were largely administrative in nature.
Porter and Berkley also argued that the transplant program's supposedly high death rate, reported by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to be 50 percent higher than expected, was a statistical anomaly, caused by the suicide of one patient.
UMC Chief Executive Officer Kathy Silver, ecstatic about the recertification, said Monday that before the contract is up with the Utah surgeons, the hospital plans to hire two multi-organ transplant surgeons on a permanent basis.
"That's what we'll need to do the same work," she said.
She said that travel concerns for the Utah surgeons has made it necessary to have, in addition to UMC transplant surgeon Dr. Gary Shen, four transplant surgeons under contract.
"Within two years, it is very possible that we will also be doing kidney-pancreas and liver transplants," she said. "If we do move into liver transplants, we'll also hire a hepatologist."
A hepatologist is a physician who specializes in diseases of the liver.
"In a state our size, the citizens of Nevada deserve a number of transplant services so they don't always have to travel out of state," Silver said.
She added that new billing procedures will allow UMC to run transplant programs within a reasonable budget.
McLaurin said he is heartened by the strides UMC continues to make in the transplant program.
"I know so many people who are waiting at a chance at life," he said. "In this economy it's just not right to ask people to go out of state to get it."
Contact reporter Paul Harasim at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2908.