There's something to be said for being a trailblazer in the health care field, a distinction to which two area hospitals can now stake claim.

That's because both the Lehighton and Palmerton campuses, members of the Blue Mountain Health System, have been recognized with the state's first awards for "Excellence in Health Care Compliance."

The two hospitals received the Above and Beyond Award for Excellence in Health Care Compliance from the Pennsylvania Secretary of Health on Wednesday, for achieving five deficiency-free PA Department of Health surveys, three at Gnaden Huetten, and two at Palmerton.

In the process, the hospitals became two of only seven facilities in the state to be recognized for top care and compliance with state regulations.

The award was issued to facilities who received no health citations during the last state licensure survey or major life safety code deficiencies on the last building inspection.

The award by the department is the first of its kind.

It identifies hospitals that have shown excellence in compliance with health care regulations. All hospitals inspected by the Department of Health are eligible, and thus there is no application process.

Earlier in the day, representatives from the state Department of Health visited the Gnaden Huetten Memorial campus in Lehighton.

"We wanted to recognize those facilities that are doing not just a good job, but a great job," said Acting Secretary of Health Michael Wolf. "This new award was developed to identify facilities demonstrating excellence in meeting state regulations and positively reinforce those actions."

That one hospital in Carbon County would receive the award is an honor, noted Wolf. That two hospitals in the area, both functioning under the same health system, would receive this recognition is worth noting.

"I think this is a wonderful thing for Carbon County, and for your patients," he added. "To be 100 percent compliant through the inspection process is truly an accomplishment. It speaks very highly of your health care system. I hope that you will inspire other hospitals to follow your lead."

Blue Mountain Health System President and CEO Andrew Harris noted that since joining Blue Mountain six years ago, he's known that both Gnaden Huetten Memorial Hospital and Palmerton Hospital offered high-quality care for local residents.

The awards confirm that the efforts put in by the health system's management teams and staff members are high quality.

"Out of 244 hospitals in the state of Pennsylvania, there are only seven awards being given out. We are receiving two of them," said Harris. "I couldn't be prouder. Our community can now know that they can receive the best quality of care, right in their back yard."

Joan Hanosek, Blue Mountain Health System's director of Quality/Risk Management/Patient Safety, noted that earning this award at both hospitals would not have been possible without strong upper management, team work, and staff members who work each day to achieve a high quality of care.

"You have to really live what you believe," she said. "You can't just have great care on that one day because there is an inspector coming. You have to live what you believe, and provide the same high quality of care every day."

Later in the day, representatives from the Department of Health arrived at the Palmerton Hospital campus.

There, Harris told employees who gathered in the third-floor conference room that the accolade certifies that Blue Mountain Health System has "arrived."

"This is a very special day. Amazing. We could not do this if we weren't all working together," he said.

Joanne Salsgiver, chief, Division of Acute and Ambulatory Care, distributed the award, which was accepted by Dorothy Patzek, vice president, Nursing; Toni Gibson, associate vice president, Nursing; and Hanosek.

"We really think this is a big deal," Salsgiver said. "We congratulate you on this achievement."

The Department of Health licenses and oversees hospitals statewide, including acute care, long-term acute care, critical access, rehabilitation, children's and psychiatric hospitals. In addition, the department conducts about 2,000 inspections annually, including licensure and certification surveys, follow-up surveys, and compliant investigations.

The rational provided by the Department of Health for receipt of the award is as follows:

Ÿ To show recognition to facilities who have distinguished themselves in a way that shows excellence in competency by being high performers in compliance.

Ÿ To raise the visibility of the Department of Health and the Office of Quality Assurance, and change the image of the depurate as not only the regulator, but also as an office that seeks to facilitate best practices development of all facilities in the state through recognition of facilities that have shown excellence.

Ÿ To promote good will and strengthen relationships with stockholders and stakeholder organizations.

Ÿ To recognize the effort necessary to meet the demanding DOH regulations, which help to safeguard the health and welfare of citizens of the commonwealth when they need the services of a nursing home.