Hospital Chain Inquiry Cited Unnecessary Cardiac Work
By REED ABELSON and JULIE CRESWELL
New York Times
August 6, 2012
GRAPHIC: HCA’s Growing Profit
In the summer of 2010, a troubling letter reached the chief ethics officer of the hospital giant HCA, written by a former nurse at one of the company’s hospitals in Florida.
In a follow-up interview, the nurse said a doctor at the Lawnwood Regional Medical Center, in the small coastal city of Fort Pierce, had been performing heart procedures on patients who did not need them, putting their lives at risk.
“It bothered me,” the nurse, C. T. Tomlinson, said in a telephone interview. “I’m a registered nurse. I care about my patients.”
In less than two months, an internal investigation by HCA concluded the nurse was right.
“The allegations related to unnecessary procedures being performed in the cath lab are substantiated,” according to a confidential memo written by a company ethics officer, Stephen Johnson, and reviewed by The New York Times.
Mr. Tomlinson’s contract was not renewed, a move that Mr. Johnson said in the memo was in retaliation for his complaints.
But the nurse’s complaint was far from the only evidence that unnecessary — even dangerous — procedures were taking place at some HCA hospitals, driving up costs and increasing profits.
HCA, the largest for-profit hospital chain in the United States with 163 facilities, had uncovered evidence as far back as 2002 and as recently as late 2010 showing that some cardiologists at several of its hospitals in Florida were unable to justify many of the procedures they were performing. Those hospitals included the Cedars Medical Center in Miami, which the company no longer owns, and the Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point. In some cases, the doctors made misleading statements in medical records that made it appear the procedures were necessary, according to internal reports.
Questions about the necessity of medical procedures — especially in the realm of cardiology — are not uncommon. None of the internal documents reviewed calculate just how many such procedures there were or how many patients might have died or been injured as a result. But the documents suggest that the problems at HCA went beyond a rogue doctor or two.
At Lawnwood, where an invasive diagnostic test known as a cardiac catheterization is performed, about half the procedures, or 1,200, were determined to have been done on patients without significant heart disease, according to a confidential 2010 review. HCA countered recently with a different analysis, saying the percentage of patients without disease was much lower and in keeping with national averages.
At Bayonet Point, a 44-year-old man who arrived at the emergency room complaining of chest pain suffered a punctured blood vessel and a near-fatal irregular heartbeat after a doctor performed a procedure that an outside expert later suggested might have been unnecessary, documents show. The man had to be revived. “They shocked him twice and got him back,” according to the testimony of Dr. Aaron Kugelmass in a medical hearing on the case.
In another incident, an outside expert described how a woman with no significant heart disease went into cardiac arrest after a vessel was cut when a Bayonet Point cardiologist inserted a stent, a meshlike device that opens coronary arteries. She remained hospitalized for several days, according to a person who has reviewed internal reports...
In a recent statement, HCA declined to provide evidence that it had alerted Medicare, state Medicaid or private insurers of its findings, or reimbursed them for any of the procedures that the company later deemed unnecessary, as required by law...
Some doctors accused in the reviews of performing unnecessary procedures are still practicing at HCA hospitals...
A Giant Hospital Chain Is Blazing a Profit Trail
By JULIE CRESWELL and REED ABELSON
August 14, 2012
During the Great Recession, when many hospitals across the country were nearly brought to their knees by growing numbers of uninsured patients, one hospital system not only survived — it thrived.
In fact, profits at the health care industry giant HCA, which controls 163 hospitals from New Hampshire to California, have soared, far outpacing those of most of its competitors.
The big winners have been three private equity firms — including Bain Capital, co-founded by Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate — that bought HCA in late 2006.
HCA’s robust profit growth has raised the value of the firms’ holdings to nearly three and a half times their initial investment in the $33 billion deal.
The financial performance has been so impressive that HCA has become a model for the industry. Its success inspired 35 buyouts of hospitals or chains of facilities in the last two and a half years by private equity firms eager to repeat that windfall.
HCA’s emergence as a powerful leader in the hospital industry is all the more remarkable because only a decade ago the company was badly shaken by a wide-ranging Medicare fraud investigation that it eventually settled for more than $1.7 billion.
Among the secrets to HCA’s success: It figured out how to get more revenue from private insurance companies, patients and Medicare by billing much more aggressively for its services than ever before; it found ways to reduce emergency room overcrowding and expenses; and it experimented with new ways to reduce the cost of its medical staff, a move that sometimes led to conflicts with doctors and nurses over concerns about patient care.
In late 2008, for instance, HCA changed the billing codes it assigned to sick and injured patients who came into the emergency rooms. Almost overnight, the numbers of patients who HCA said needed more care, which would be paid for at significantly higher levels by Medicare, surged.
HCA, which had lagged the industry for those high-paying categories, jumped ahead of its competitors and was reimbursed accordingly. The change, which HCA’s executives said better reflected the service being provided, increased operating earnings by nearly $100 million in the first quarter of 2009.
To some, HCA successfully pushed the envelope in its interpretation of existing Medicare rules. “If HCA can do it, why can’t we?” asked a hospital consulting firm, the Advisory Board Company, in a presentation to its clients.
In one instance, HCA executives said a private insurer, which it declined to name, questioned the new billing system, forcing it to return some of the money it had collected.
The hospital giant also adopted a policy meant to address an issue that bedevils hospitals nationwide — reducing costs and overcrowding in its emergency rooms. For years, the hospital emergency room has been used by the uninsured as a de facto doctor’s office — a place for even the most minor of ailments. But emergency care is expensive and has become increasingly burdensome to hospitals in the last decade because of the rising number of uninsured patients.
HCA decided not to treat patients who came in with nonurgent conditions, like a cold or the flu or even a sprained wrist, unless those patients paid in advance. In a recent statement, HCA said that of the six million patients treated in its emergency rooms last year, 80,000, or about 1.3 percent, “ chose to seek alternative care options.”
“Many E.R.’s in America, particularly in densely populated urban areas where most HCA-affiliated facilities are located, have adopted a variety of systems to determine whether a patient in fact needs emergency care,” the statement said. “About half our hospitals have done so. Typically, our affiliated hospitals have two caregivers — usually a triage nurse and a physician — make that determination. It should be noted that other non-HCA affiliated hospitals are using similar processes to address E.R. issues.”
As HCA’s profits and influence grew, strains arose with doctors and nurses over whether the chain’s pursuit of profit may have, at times, come at the expense of patient care.
HCA had put in place a flexible staffing system that allowed it to estimate the number of patients it would have each day in its hospitals and alter the number of nurses it needed accordingly.
Several nurses interviewed said they were concerned that the system sometimes had led to inadequate staffing in important areas like critical care. In one measure of adequate staffing — the prevalence of bedsores in patients bedridden for long periods of time — HCA clearly struggled. Some of its hospitals fended off lawsuits over the problem in recent years, and were admonished by regulators over staffing issues more than once.
‘Through the Roof’
Many doctors interviewed at various HCA facilities said they had felt increased pressure to focus on profits under the private equity ownership. “Their profits are going through the roof, but, unfortunately, it’s occurring at the expense of patients,” said Dr. Abraham Awwad, a kidney specialist in St. Petersburg, Fla., whose complaints over the safety of the dialysis programs at two HCA-owned hospitals prompted state investigations.
One facility was fined $8,000 in 2008 and $14,000 last year for delaying the start of dialysis in patients, not administering physician-prescribed drugs and not documenting whether ordered tests had been performed.
Claiming he provided poor care, the other hospital did not renew Dr. Awwad’s privileges. Dr. Awwad is suing to have them reinstated. HCA declined to comment. HCA says it stands by its procedures, billing practices and level of care...