Monday, April 20, 2009

New Jersey Legislator Found Guilty of Fraudulantly Advocating on Hospital's Behalf

Here is the latest story of health care corruption, this one involving a state legislator and a big hospital, as reported by the Newark Star-Ledger,

Former state senator Joseph Coniglio, who funneled more than $1 million in public funding to Hackensack University Medical Center after it gave him a high-paying consulting job, was convicted yesterday on six counts of fraud and extortion.

The jury of seven men and five women, who issued a split decision and were deadlocked on one of the nine counts, found Coniglio guilty on nearly all the charges involving the exchange of money.

The verdict, coming after four days of deliberations, found Coniglio guilty on five counts of defrauding the public and one count of extortion. He was acquitted on two mail fraud counts; the jury said it was unable to reach a verdict on a third mail fraud charge.

Coniglio, a retired union plumber elected to the Senate in 2001, first met in early 2004 with Hackensack University Medical Center's chief executive, John P. Ferguson -- about the time he was appointed to a seat on the influential Budget and Appropriations Committee -- and began negotiating for a $5,000-a-month consulting contract to do work that was never clearly defined. The consulting agreement was signed in May 2004 and Coniglio subsequently began lobbying to help secure a series of grants for the medical center's programs for abused children, its cancer center and children's hospital.

Prosecutors argued the consulting work was simply a guise to pay off Coniglio in exchange for his support for funding millions in special earmarks.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Rachael Honig, who agreed the case was circumstantial, told jurors corruption is secret and there is never a roadmap to detail it. 'People don't get paid to do nothing,' she said.

No hospital officials were charged, but one medical center executive had negotiated a non-prosecution agreement in exchange for testimony.

Note that this case is very similar to one in my state of Rhode Island. In that case, both a state legislator and a hospital CEO have been found guilty. (The CEO was just sentenced, as reported here in the Providence Journal.)

These cases are a reminder of the prevalence of out and out corruption in US health care. Indeed, Transparency International's 2006 Global Corruption Report argued that health care corruption is common throughout the world, in nearly all countries, regardless of their wealth, or the organization of their health care systems. Corruption misdirects health care resources, raising costs for all, and indirectly leads to restricted access to care. I submit that the corruption of people with decision making power in health care likely taints all their decisions, often to the detriment of patients and health care professionals.

Although not all health care corruption is discovered and successfully prosecuted, even those cases that result in convictions are often anechoic. If we cannot even talk about health care corruption, how are we ever going to do anything about it? But if we are not resolved to at least confront corruption, should we be whining about increasing costs, and declining access and quality?

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