Hospital blunder allowed
sick firefighters to keep working
ABC Action News report 6/14/04
TAMPA - The Action News investigators have learned that a local hospital
trusted with the care of Hillsborough County firefighters failed to do
its job, leaving the public at risk.
University Community Hospital tested hundreds of firefighters for
hepatitis-C, but never told some firefighters the results. Several
infected firefighters had no idea they tested positive, and continued to
In 2001, University Community Hospital won a contract to provide state
and federally mandated hepatitis-C screening for Hillsborough County's
But it took a full three years for UCH to notify at least five
firefighters that they tested positive.
"People are very frustrated, very upset," said Karl Schmitt, the
president of the firefighters union. "It's a very scary situation for
The firefighters' identities are protected by medical privacy laws. But
their union president told Action News the infected men and their
families are furious.
"They want to know, 'How could this happen? How could we not be notified
that our results were positive?'" Schmitt explained. "Obviously there
were some record-keeping problems."
The firefighters' families and the people they've treated in emergency
situations should also be concerned. Hepatitis-C can be transmitted
"They need to be very careful in the household about what they are
sharing, such as razors or bandages, or anything that could have blood
on it that could transmit the disease to somebody else," warned
epidemiological expert Dr. Julia Gill.
UCH's recent failures should not be surprising to county officials.
Investigator Robin Guess uncovered evidence that the hospital's
performance was questioned almost from the very beginning.
In 2002, just one year after the contract began, the firefighters union
wrote a letter to fire chief William Nesmith complaining about "the
record-keeping, accuracy, and punctuality of the department's health
care provider for the infectious disease program."
"We found that people were not getting results in a timely basis. Some
people were not getting results at all. Some people were getting other
people's results at their homes," Schmitt recalled.
Concern about UCH's performance may now spread well beyond the county's
700 firefighters. The hospital's contract covers health testing for the
county's entire workforce: that's about 4,800 additional workers whose
results on a variety of tests could be in doubt or unknown.
"I think every organization in the county who has utilized University
Occupational Health in the past has got to ask for a review of their
records and ensure that they don't have the same kind of problems that
we've had," Schmitt said.
County commissioner Pat Frank said the hospital's failures are
"Going three years carrying a disease and not knowing about it, that's
serious. That is very serious," she observed.
What is particularly devastating for the firefighters who have
unknowingly lived with hepatitis-C for the past three years is they
don't know how much damage has been done to their liver in that period
of time. Nor do they know if they have unknowingly passed it on.
UCH claims the chance of a firefighter passing the disease on is very
low and the public should not be worried. The hospital's assistant
director of occupational health says she's reviewing the charts of more
than 500 firefighters to prevent more mistakes.
"Unfortunately we view that as an issue of human error," explained Dr.
Toni Belisle of UCH. "What we have done in our internal reviews is
identified those individuals who have positive test results or those who
need further testing, and we are getting letters out next week."
But the firefighters union wants the contract with UCH ended now. The
contract between the hospital and the county makes it clear: the county
may immediately terminate the agreement if the hospital can't get the
job done right.
Chief Nesmith told Action News he has lost confidence in the hospital
and he is considering a plan to get rid of UCH as the testing provider.
A decision may come as early as this week.
Meanwhile, the fire department is trying to evaluate just how many more
firefighters could be affected by this failure.
"You know we are looking at worst case scenario, we are very concerned,"
Schmitt added. "The key thing is that the five employees that have been
identified so far get the proper care; that they get their follow-up
UCH promises firefighters with questions or concerns about their status
will get answers if they call 813-615-7562.