Herald-Leader blasts UK for secrecy surrounding children’s heart program and its efforts to rebuild it despite nearby competition

The Lexington Herald-Leader blasted the University of Kentucky in an editorial Sunday for “stonewalling questions about the decision to halt pediatric
cardiothoracic surgeries and the mysterious sidelining of Dr. Mark
Plunkett, the high-profile surgeon UK hired in 2007 to rebuild that

Mark Plunkett

The editorial says UK officials implied that “all would be clear” after their examination of the children’s heart program, but “nothing is clear” after they issued a 100-page report that “offers no explanation about what went wrong. In fact, Plunkett’s name never appears in the report.”

But the report does acknowledge two challenges in rebuilding the program: “There are several excellent congenital heart centers in close proximity” to Lexington, and “In some cases we must regain the trust of our referring providers.” Dr. Michael Karpf, UK’s vice president for health, has been publicly appealing for referrals of all types from hospitals and physicians in Western Kentucky, where UK competes with Vanderbilt University.

Michael Karpf

“After two unsuccessful, no doubt very expensive, efforts to build
this program, UK wants to try again,” the editorial says. “And it wants to regain trust of referring physicians and
families with very sick, very young children despite the fact that it
has consistently undermined trust by refusing to answer legitimate
questions. UK has in fact agreed to pay a lot of money to avoid a public discussion of what went wrong,” keeping Plunkett on the payroll, then paying him $1.5 million for “a vow of silence on both sides.”

The editorial concludes, “It is aggravating that UK, a public land-grant institution in a very
sick state, is intent on carving out a specialized, expensive
health-care niche that’s already filled when there are so many needs
that are not being met. It is also deeply disturbing that UK’s energy and treasure are aimed at maintaining a shroud of secrecy over this program. We
still don’t know much about what happened in Plunkett’s operating rooms
but it is clear that UK botched this opportunity to regain the public’s
trust.” (Read more)

Asked to reply, UK spokesman Jay Blanton said, “First, our job is to make sure that Kentuckians have access to the most complex health care. Kentuckians should not have to go outside Kentucky to have access to such high-quality, complex care. . . . If we didn’t have such a program, Kentuckians – particularly those in Eastern Kentucky – will have to leave the state for critically important pediatric care. Moreover, part of the requirements of having a Level 1 trauma center and service for this region is to have an appropriate presence in this critical area of children’s care.

“Second, we’ve been totally forthright. Our standards and expectations – for both transparency and quality – are evidenced by, among other things, our ranking just this month of 12th out of 118 academic medical centers for quality, by University Health Consortium. UHC provides an objective, impartial analysis across a range of quality measures. You don’t rank 12th in the country if you are not putting forward, in a transparent fashion, your numbers and outcomes across an array of metrics and quality measurements.”

Kentucky Health News is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky, with support from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

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