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O.C. Control Over Medical Waste Makes Needed Gains

Public health: County program avoids state takeover, but will continue to be watched closely for a year.


In the wake of a scathing state audit, Orange County has been permitted to continue operating its troubled medical waste program, but will be closely watched by state regulators for the next year.

The county has bolstered the program enough to avoid a state takeover, but must provide the state with quarterly progress reports to assure that improvements continue, officials said Monday.

"They've turned the corner on the first hurdle, and now we want to make sure they complete the race," said Jack McGurk, chief of the environmental management branch at the state Department of Health Services.

In a harshly critical audit last fall, McGurk's department took Orange County to task for failing to properly monitor how local hospitals, laboratories and other medical facilities managed and stored medical waste. During 1996, for instance, the program failed to inspect 80% of the county's largest medical-waste generators.

State officials warned they would take over the program if the county did not make needed improvements.

But Monday, McGurk wrote to Jack Miller, director of environmental health at the county Health Care Agency, that the program is "significantly improved, and is making progress toward upgrading the program to an acceptable level for statewide consistency.

"Because Orange County's Medical Waste Program has taken positive steps towards improvement, DHS will continue to allow the county to operate this program over the next year."

Miller said he was pleased to hear the news.

"We're real happy," Miller said. "We felt that with a good, quick remedy, we could take care of it, show the state we were capable of running a good program, and get back to speed."

The November state audit faulted the county on a number of issues, from inspection lapses to failing to assure that hospitals and other facilities had produced management plans explaining how they handle and dispose of waste. The state has required such plans since 1991.

In Orange County, "most of their facilities did not have a management plan because the county hadn't asked for them," McGurk said.

When state auditors inspected a medical waste storage facility, they found it lacked a permit and warning signs and that its containers were overfilled.

But the county has moved forward in recent months with its inspections and efforts to gather plans, McGurk said.

Following the audit, regulators randomly inspected 16 hospitals, clinics and other medical waste generators that had already been inspected by the county. While a few questions arose, McGurk said, "we found a lot of them that are in good shape."

The state may do some "spot checks" in Orange County in the next year, and is requiring quarterly progress reports starting March 31.

The state audit had faulted the program's staffing levels, finding that one person--with other, unrelated duties--was assigned to medical waste, overseeing more than 200 facilities.

Today, Miller said, the program has a staff of two, and they are working hard to collect the required reports from waste generators.

State officials say they have no evidence of a direct link between the program's shortcomings and the syringes and other medical waste that washed up on Orange County's beaches last summer, forcing some beach closings.

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