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Shortage of Nurses May Have Contributed to Patients' Deaths

State health officials are on the scene at Town and Country Hospital this afternoon. The Tampa medical center has been barred from admitting any new patients into its surgical unit, pending an investigation into the death of three patients last month.

Lutz resident Jean Miller was shocked to find out about the emergency moratorium put on Town and Country hospital. She's been admitted three times.

"I had gallbladder surgery there and I had no problems," she said. "I would always go back there."

Polly Weaver, the chief of field operations for the Agency for Health Care Administration-- or AHCA-- says the agency's investigation tells a different story.

"The bottom line was, patients were not getting the appropriate care, follow up, that they were supposed to be getting," says Weaver.

The report says that's because the hospital didn't have an adequate number of registered nurses working. Instead, licensed practical nurses - who lack the training of RNs - were doing much of the work.

The report reads, "Respondent has demonstrated that its nursing services, including but not limited to the availability of registered nurse services and supervision of licensed practical nursing, do not presently meet the standard of Florida law."

It goes on to say that the hospital has had similar problems in the recent past. In fact, AHCA investigated Town and Country in 2011. Then the agency found that there was a great span of time - sometimes several hours - before emergency room nurses assessed patients after initial triage.

The hospital was fined $1,000.

Weaver says investigators will conduct interviews with patients and staff, and look at records to determine - if and when - the hospital's surgical unit will be allowed to admit new patients.

Town and Country Hospital released a written statement from CEO Dale Johns:

“Town and Country Hospital has provided high quality patient care in Tampa for more than 30 years, so this situation is concerning to us and our many experienced care givers.  Consistent with our long-term commitment to comply with all regulatory requirements, we are responding seriously and expeditiously to the action items raised by Florida's Agency for Health Care Administration.  We are working cooperatively with the Agency and bringing all necessary resources to fully respond to its requirements. The hospital’s corrective action plan was submitted to the Florida Agency for Healthcare Administration, and we hope to be admitting patients to our medical/surgical unit very soon.  In the meantime, our top priority is providing high quality care to the patients currently in the hospital who are not affected by the recent order.  The hospital is still accepting patients in all other departments including the emergency department, behavioral health unit and ICU.”

Sarah Pusateri is a former multimedia health policy reporter for Health News Florida, a project of WUSF. The Buffalo New York native most recently worked as a health reporter for Healthystate.org, a two year grant-funded project at WUSF. There, she co-produced an Emmy Award winning documentary called Uniform Betrayal: Rape in the Military.