Fatal Medical Error by University of Chicago Medical Center Leads to Threats of Medicare and Medicaid Termination

The death of a high-power, Chicago executive at the University of Chicago Medical Center could lead to the Chicago hospital losing its medicare payments. James Tyree, CEO of The Chicago Sun-Times and Mesirow Financial, died from an air embolism that developed after his catheter was removed incorrectly. The medical negligence occurred while Mr. Tyree was being treated for pneumonia at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

The air embolism occurred after air entered the catheter as it was being removed. The air bubble then entered Mr. Tyree’s blood stream. This is problematic because when an air bubble becomes lodged in a vein or artery it can eventually block the flow of blood through that vein or artery. If your blood flow is blocked you are at risk of not getting enough blood to your heart or brain, which is a deadly situation.

This fatal medical error was not only preventable, but involved a skill that was so basic its being done incorrectly could be seen as gross negligence. After considering the facts of Mr. Tyree’s death, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services stated that the “deficiencies [which led to Mr. Tyree’s death] were so serious that they constitute an immediate threat to patient health and safety.”

This determination came after an investigation into Mr. Tyree’s death conducted by the Illinois Department of Public Health and the Joint Commission, a hospital accrediting agency. Their investigation supported the autopsy findings of the Cook County Medical Examiner, who listed Mr. Tyree’s cause of death as the improper removal of his dialysis catheter.

When the federal government looked into the possible reasons that the catheter was improperly removed, it found that the University of Chicago Medical Center lacked written policies as to how its catheters should be removed. All hospitals are responsible for keeping written policies for a number of procedures; not having these policies in place is not only highly unusual, but also extremely dangerous as it could lead to simple and preventable medical errors. As a result of the federal investigation’s findings, Medicare announced that unless these conditions were corrected immediately, it would be terminating the University of Chicago Medical Center’s Medicare payments as of April 28, 2011.

This swift and harsh response by the federal government prompted an equally quick reaction in the Chicago hospital. Within days the University of Chicago Medical Center announced that it had performed its own investigation and corrected any and all conditions that could have led to Mr. Tyree’s wrongful death. The University of Chicago Medical Center assured both the government and the general public that it has ensured that all of its physicians’ assistants and medical personnel are well trained to perform various catheter techniques and procedures, including a “central line placement” which was the incorrectly preformed procedure that led to Mr. Tyree’s death.

In addition to this announcement, the University of Chicago Medical Center submitted a detailed plan correcting these problems to Medicare in an effort to demonstrate its efforts to remain in compliance with Medicare standards and prevent any similar medical errors. In response, Medicare removed its threats of canceling the Chicago hospital’s Medicare payments, instead allowing its Medicare program to remain intact.

It is unlikely that so swift and through a response would occurred without the federal government threatening to revoke the hospital’s Medicare payments. This tactic is being used by the federal government more and more in order to ensure that Americans receive a high level of health care. According to the Institute of Medicine, over 100,000 Americans die as a result of medical malpractice due to preventable medical errors each year.

In response to this alarming statistic, the federal government has vowed to reduce these types of preventable medical errors by 40% over the next three years. Its plan to accomplish this is to enlist the help of insurers and hospitals to recognize poor health care and institute penalties when it occurs. Private health insurance companies have joined Medicare in refusing to pay for low quality medical care, especially when it involves preventable errors. The hope is that by penalizing hospitals for poor care will provide the necessary motivation for them to improve the overall level of care.

Kreisman Law Offices has been handling Illinois medical malpractice lawsuits and Chicago wrongful death matters for more than 35 years on behalf of individuals and families in and around Chicago, Cook County, and surrounding areas, including Glenview, Chicago Heights, Norridge, Crestwood, and Lansing.


Bruce Japsen. “Federal government acts after James Tyree’s death: University of Chicago Medical Center heads off Medicare penalty for medical error.” The Chicago Tribune. April 14, 2011.
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