DENVER — The president of the Denver City Council is demanding answers from Denver Health after a Denver7 investigation raised questions about the culture inside the hospital’s paramedics division.
Council President Stacie Gilmore said she feels that Denver Health needs to explain decisions made by paramedics during a response to a serious car crash in September 2020.
Denver7 Investigates has reviewed body camera video from the Aurora Police Department that appears to show emergency crews questioning why a seriously injured person was transported more than 14 miles to Denver Health instead of driven to UCHealth, a level-one trauma center 4 miles away.
The car crash happened at about 4:30 a.m. on Sept. 28, 2020, near the intersection of Interstate 70 and I-225 on the Denver and Aurora border. Body camera video shows an Aurora police officer following a Denver Health Paramedic westbound on I-70 for 17 minutes to Denver Health. The ambulance was driving Code-10, which means lights and sirens are on and the vehicle is traveling at a high rate of speed. It’s the highest-priority call.
Minutes before, body camera video shows emergency responders asking questions about the destination hospital for the injured car crash victim. “Where are they taking him?” said the unidentified emergency responder. A second person on scene responded that the victim was headed to Denver Health
“University is closer,” Gilmore said. “Why would we be doing that?”
Gilmore reviewed the body camera video obtained by Denver7 Investigates and said from her observation, emergency crews were clearly questioning the decision and the objective of the decision to bypass UCHealth, the closest emergency room, and take the crash victim to Denver Health.
“They don’t agree with it,” said Gilmore of some of the personnel in the video. “It seemed odd that they were going to go to a different facility when there was one so close.”
It’s yet another example of what some paramedics say is a culture where they are pressured by managers to bring critically injured patients to Denver Health and bypass other level-one trauma centers.
Earlier this year, Denver7 Investigates uncovered documents and heard testimonials from more than a half-dozen current and former paramedics questioning that culture.
Sources told Denver7 Investigates about a gunshot wound victim in Green Valley Ranch who walked into an urgent care center, and there, a doctor determined his injuries required treatment at a qualified emergency room. The closest emergency department was UCHealth, but Denver Health paramedics elected to drive the victim across town to Denver Health.
Denver7 Investigates also obtained records, through the state’s open records law, showing UCHealth had sent emails to Denver Health questioning more than a dozen other decisions by Denver Health paramedics to bypass their level-one trauma center for a longer drive to Denver Health.
“If I transport the patient to Denver Health, no matter what the outcome is, I won’t get second guessed by the medical director,” said a former paramedic who had more than a decade of experience at Denver Health and spoke to Denver7 Investigates. “I won’t get second guessed by the medical director. If I transport to another facility, it will be scrutinized and reviewed much closer.”
A second former paramedic had a similar conclusion.
“All level-one trauma goes to Denver Health. You will go by other level-one trauma centers to go to Denver Health. If not, you were questioned as to why you did not take that patient to Denver Health.”
The first paramedic added: “There are two types of paramedics who work at Denver Health. One who takes all Code-10 trauma to Denver Health and ones who used to work there.”
Gilmore said he found the comments from the paramedics very concerning and she believes they felt conflicted.
“I would like to get to the bottom of this,” she said. “They wanted to do what was right, was in the best interest of the patient that they were responsible for, and they felt they couldn’t do it.”
Gilmore represents Denver’s 11th district. She describes it as a diverse district in northeast Denver that includes a large Hispanic and Black population. It’s the district from where both the gunshot victim and car accident victim were taken to Denver Health over a closer facility.
During an interview earlier this year with a senior manager of Denver Health’s paramedics division, Dr. Kevin McVaney denied any wrongdoing by his paramedics division and said they follow all proper paramedic protocols.
He also denied placing any pressure on paramedics to return critically injured patients to Denver Health.
“No paramedic has ever faced discipline for not bringing a trauma patient to Denver Health,” McVaney said. “I’ve done nothing wrong. I take care of patients. I would not change a thing about how we equip and take care of our trauma patients.”
McVaney did admit a mistake with the decision to transport the gunshot wound victim to Denver Health on May 11.
In an internal email obtained by Denver7 Investigates, McVaney wrote: “My reply to [UCHealth] on this one was that it was not the best destination. We should discuss and prep if we think this is going to go to media."
Denver7 Investigates also obtained an internal email authored by Dr. McVaney that may expose mounting tensions between Denver Health and UCHealth.
"I don’t want to overemphasize these because I don’t want [UCHealth] to set our agenda," the email stated in reference to the multiple complaints filed by UCHealth,.
To date, Denver Health has not announced any changes or proposed changes in the wake of information uncovered by Denver7 Investigates.
Council President Gilmore was asked to respond to the potential that senior leadership at the hospital does not change the culture questioned by multiple current and former paramedics. She said that would not be acceptable, “because you are, by taking that stance, quite possibly putting Black and brown people at a greater risk than the rest of the population.”
Denver7 Investigates wanted to raise those points with Denver Health CEO Robin Wittenstein, in addition to questions about the culture at the hospital that our reports had uncovered. The unanswered question is will Denver Health make changes?
Gilmore questioned that decision by the hospital — saying it was not acceptable for Wittenstein to avoid questions and accountability.
“It’s Denver taxpayers who are putting money into these facilities,” Gilmore said. “They deserve to have answers. To understand if, God forbid, something life-changing happened to a loved one, that they weren’t going on a joy ride through the city. That they were going to take the quickest route to an emergency room.”
Denver Health did release the following written statement in response to questions raised in this report:
“In reference to the incident on 9/28/20, the Denver Health Paramedic Division (DHPD) ambulance crew noticed the scene of a motor vehicle accident as they were traveling west-bound on I-70. Our ambulance arrived on site before a 911 call was made and alerted other first responders. The paramedics determined a patient on scene was injured but not critical. In considering the time of day and route that would be needed to travel further west to the next exit before doubling back to a geographically closer hospital, the decision was made to continue westbound and transport the patient to Denver Health. The difference in time of arrival was inconsequential to either location.”
The statement also disclosed that the patient was discharged a few days later.