In September 2008, 83-year-old John McCleary broke his leg. He was taken to Millinocket Regional Hospital, where he spent 12 days recovering.
Yet the break was minor enough, said his daughter, Kathy Day of Bangor, that she doesn’t remember doctors preparing a splint for it.
”He walked into his own home with the help of a walker,” she said, ”and a day and a half later he dropped down with MRSA pneumonia.”
McCleary was readmitted to the hospital, this time to intensive care. He weakened to the point he could not hold a glass of water, and his appetite waned. He lost 50 pounds, and died about three months later.
Day has now made it her mission to fight MRSA, or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, an infection that kills about 19,000 people a year nationwide, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.
She was among those who testified last week at a public hearing before the state Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on a bill that would require all patients in high-risk populations be tested for the dangerous bacteria.
The health care lobby is divided about the bill, L.D. 1687: While strongly supported by the state’s nursing association, it is opposed by most doctors and hospitals.
The bill is sponsored by Rep. Adam Goode, D-Bangor.
Last year, Goode sponsored legislation to require hospitals to offer MRSA tests to patients in several categories, report test results to the state and continue testing those groups who show a certain baseline of infection.
That legislation received the easy support of the Legislature. Goode’s latest bill, though, may face stiffer resistance.
Sen. Lisa Marrache, D-Waterville, is a practicing family physician and co-chair of the Health and Human Services Committee. She is also assistant Senate majority leader and sits on the Legislative Council, which decides on the bills to be considered in second, short sessions.
Marrache said Goode’s bill should never have been taken up.
”There are a few that slide in,” she said.
Along with Day, the committee heard supporting testimony from nurses, consumer advocates, the Maine People’s Alliance and others, and opposition from hospitals and doctors and leading epidemiologists from Maine Medical Center in Portland, and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.
Dr. Robert Pinsky, the hospital epidemiologist at Eastern Maine and St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor, acknowledges the threat MRSA and other hospital-associated infections pose.
”If I felt that L.D. 1687 would help us in preventing MRSA transmission in Maine hospitals, I would be the first to enthusiastically support it,” he testified. ”But I don’t.
”The current science does not support either the necessity or even the usefulness of widespread active surveillance testing to reduce the risk of MRSA transmission in hospitals.”
Pinsky said proper hand-washing is the best way to prevent spread of MRSA, which is a mutation of a common bacteria, present on nearly every person’s skin at least once in his lifetime.
There is also the issue of false positives, he said, noting that three of eight people could be wrongly diagnosed.
”I think what really has driven this (bill) is good intentions, but misunderstanding of the science,” he said.
Day and other supporters of the proposed legislation, though, said while most hospitals in the state have improved their practices, monitoring remains essential.
”Do you want to have a program and screen for MRSA for six months,” said Vanessa Sylvester, coordinator for the Maine State Nurses Association, ”or do you want to have a program that’s in place indefinitely, until we can get MRSA rates at hospitals to be zero?”.