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Fresh blood revives faltering AGH heart transplant program

Luis Fábregas
| Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2007

The heart transplant program at Allegheny General Hospital is on the upswing after a steep decline in the number of transplants over the past five years, officials said Tuesday.

Surgeons at the North Side hospital have performed 12 heart transplants in the past nine months, compared to four in all of 2005, officials said.

Officials at AGH, where a liver transplant program also is in the works, attributed the program's resurgence to the recruitment of Dr. Srinivas Murali as director of cardiovascular medicine and two heart surgeons, Drs. David Dean and Stephen Bailey.

Murali, who was recruited in January 2006 from rival University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said the program's goal is to perform 15 to 20 heart transplants this year.

Officials at UPMC, where surgeons performed 42 heart transplants during the first nine months of 2006, declined to comment.

The AGH program in the early 1990s performed about 20 transplants a year.

The subsequent drop in volume was attributed to several factors, including the illness of a leading heart surgeon, Dr. James Magovern, and the financial health of AGH's former parent, the Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation.

As a result, the program was not meeting standards from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, which requires heart transplant centers to perform at least 12 transplants a year to be eligible for federal funding.

Those lapses came to light in a June story in the Los Angeles Times, which listed Allegheny General Hospital among 48 transplant programs nationwide that were not meeting federal standards.

Murali said yesterday the hospital was never told by the government agency of any deficiencies, but contacted the agency after the Times published its story.

"As soon as we heard that AGH appeared on the list, we decided to be upfront about it," Murali said. "We wanted to make sure that we did not wait until CMS (Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services) came down with a hammer and shut down the program."

The federal agency in August notified more than 30 hospitals they were not meeting federal standards. The agency did not identify any of the hospitals, but last month it said it told Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Montefiore Medical Center in New York that they no longer would receive Medicare funding.

In addition to looking at the number of procedures, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services targeted transplant centers whose survival rates were below accepted standards.

Murali said Allegheny General's survival rates weren't an issue. He said the one-year survival rate of heart transplant patients is 86 percent, which exceeds the 75 percent threshold established by federal regulators.

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