Tuesday, June 02, 2009

"Man's Best Hospital," Run by the Boss of a MECC (Medical Education and Communications Company)?

In January, 2009 we posted about how the CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS) of Massachusetts and of Partners HealthCare, made a secret oral agreement that BCBS would pay Partners at a higher rate than that given to other hospitals.

Why BCBS would want to pay so much to this one hospital system was never clear. Partners does include some extremely prestigious hospitals, including the Brigham and Womens Hospital, and the Massachusetts General Hospital, ("Man's Best Hospital" in the House of God), but there are some other very prestigious teaching hospitals in Boston that were not blessed by BCBS' largess.

We speculated about one possible cause: the leadership of the two organizations may have felt they had more in common with each other than with the constituencies of their own organizations. A few leaders of each organization had direct ties to the other. Many leaders of both organizations were simultaneously leaders of finance, the same sector that has brought us what is now called the Great Recession. Leadership of both organizations had conflicted loyalties. The organizations' CEOs at the time, and many members of their boards had divided loyalties and apparent conflicts of interest. For example, Jack Connors, the chair of the Partners HealthCare board, is also the Chairman Emeritus of marketing communications company Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopoulos Inc, whose clients include pharmaceutical and pharmacy benefits manager CVS / Caremark, and is also a member of the board of directors of Covidien, a medical device company.

The Boston Globe just published a report that Mr Connors had even more intense conflicts that had not heretofore been made public.
He's chairman of New England's largest healthcare company, and that position atop Partners HealthCare has tested the limits of Jack Connors's considerable corporate dexterity.

Though he has no background in medicine, Connors has been Partners' chief overseer, champion, and its most public face for 13 years.

[One board member] is the cofounder and chairman emeritus of Partners' advertising firm. That would be Jack Connors. And that potential point of conflict has been disclosed....

But to the chagrin of some former board members, never brought up for board review was Connors's stake in a leading medical education firm whose sale in 2004 made Connors a very wealthy man.

Nor has the board notified public officials of Connors's ownership of a fledgling home healthcare firm that has directly solicited Partners' hospitals for business.

Connors and top Partners officials defended the decision not to publicly disclose Connors's potential conflicts, saying that because Partners did not directly contract with either of Connors's firms there were no conflicts to report. Connors also defended his right to be an entrepreneur in the healthcare business while also chairing Partners' board, and strongly denied ever using his position for personal or financial advantage.

The larger company, M/C Communications, grew to become the biggest commercial provider of continuing education to physicians in the decade between its inception in 1994 and when Connors sold it in 2004. It profited hugely from an exclusive commercial relationship it maintained with Harvard Medical School, whose faculty teach at seminars the company holds. Partners' signature institutions, Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women's Hospital, are major teaching affiliates of Harvard Medical School.

In addition, M/C Communications benefited financially from millions of dollars in sponsorship revenue paid it from major pharmaceutical firms eager to play to this professional audience.

Connors said he was under no obligation to disclose his ownership of M/C Communications to the Partners board. He said that while there is an 'affiliation' between Harvard Medical School and the two Partners hospitals, there is no formal contract between them.

Connors said he informed Partners executives of his ownership of M/C Communications, and that they determined it did not warrant disclosure to the full Partners board.

'There is no contract between Partners and Harvard,' Partners said in a statement to the Globe.

Connors made a name for himself as an executive with Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, the Boston advertising company that he helped found and guided throughout a long career. Less well known is that he made most of his fortune from M/C Communications, which he sold to Bain Capital for $450 million in 2004.

The sale was the largest of a private healthcare-related company in Massachusetts that year, according to TM Capital Corp., an investment banking company. Connors, who led an investor group that bought the firm outright for $13 million in 2000, made about $250 million from its sale.

After his 2004 windfall, he founded a company that helps elderly patients readjust to life at home after a hospitalization.

That company, Dovetail Health, has - Connors acknowledged - solicited business from hospitals owned by Partners
. And Connors confirmed that after Dovetail executives failed to convince Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts to contract with the firm, he personally spoke to the giant insurer's president, Cleve L. Killingsworth, on Dovetail's behalf. Partners and Blue Cross Blue Shield regularly negotiate over $2.5 billion worth of medical business a year.

Connors acknowledged in an interview that it might have appeared 'inappropriate' to some for him to pitch Killingsworth. But he said the conversation stemmed from a shared belief that new ways must be found to reduce frequent return trips of elderly patients to the hospital. More recently, however, he said he does not believe his approach to Killingsworth was inappropriate.
So let's try to recap this.

While Jack Connors has been chairman of the board of Partners HealthCare, the largest and most prestigious hospital system in Massachusetts, he also ran an advertising agency that did business with Partners, and has been on the board of Covidien, a medical device company. Both of these relationships he disclosed to his fellow board members, although no one seemed troubled by them.

However, while a Partners board member, Connors was also the founder, and ultimately profited very handsomely from the sale of M/C Communications. M/C Communications apparently begat M/C Holding Corporation, which in turn owns M/C Communications and Pri-Med Institute LLC. M/C Communications now describes itself as " established in 1994 and has become a leading provider of medical education event management solutions for health care professionals and others around the globe." M/C Communications runs Pri-Med, which is described thus: "Pri-Med is a platform for science and medicine that includes meetings, resources, online, and new media tools designed to meet the information and education needs of today’s practicing physician." Pri-Med markets itself to industry, presumably the pharmaceutical, biotechnology, and device industry, "Sixty percent of doctors’ offices restrict rep access, making it more challenging than ever to get in front of your customers. But with Pri-Med, you get to meet clinicians in a professional environment where they seek you out. More than 66% of attendees say they come to Pri-Med events to meet you, industry representatives." So Connors' company was a medical education and communication company (MECC), which provided what appeared to be educational programs to physicians that in fact were also sold to the health care industry as marketing opportunities.

So Partners HealthCare, which includes two of the world's most prestigious teaching hospitals, has been run by the boss of a MECC? Say it ain't so.

Not only did Connors own a company that had an exclusive contractual relationship (as described above) with the Harvard faculty who staff the main Partners HealthCare hospitals, that company was engaged in marketing the products of sponsoring drug and device companies disguised as education. Finally, Connors denied that this presented any kind of conflict of interest, because Partners HealthCare has no explicit contract, just an "affiliation" with Harvard Medical School.

Finally, just to ice the cake, Connors' latest venture is a home health care company that did business with Partners, and tried to do business with BCBS, spearheaded by Connors' direct conversations with the BCBS CEO.

Jack Connors thus seems to have just become the latest poster boy for leaders of health care organizations who put their personal financial interests ahead of their responsibilities to those organizations, and function as a power elite whose collective interests trump those of the constituents of the organizations they run.

Quoting from BoardSource, the main duties of the leader of any US not-for-profit are:

Duty of Care

The duty of care describes the level of competence that is expected of a board member, and is commonly expressed as the duty of 'care that an ordinarily prudent person would exercise in a like position and under similar circumstances.' This means that a board member owes the duty to exercise reasonable care when he or she makes a decision as a steward of the organization.

Duty of Loyalty

The duty of loyalty is a standard of faithfulness; a board member must give undivided allegiance when making decisions affecting the organization. This means that a board member can never use information obtained as a member for personal gain, but must act in the best interests of the organization.

Duty of Obedience

The duty of obedience requires board members to be faithful to the organization's mission. They are not permitted to act in a way that is inconsistent with the central goals of the organization. A basis for this rule lies in the public's trust that the organization will manage donated funds to fulfill the organization's mission.

By leading companies that did direct business with Partners and its staff, and failing to disclose that he was doing so to his fellow Partners board members, Connors appeared to have violated the Duty of Loyalty.

By running a MECC that helps drug and device companies market to physicians in the guise of education, using faculty from the academic teaching hospitals that he lead, Connors seems to have mocked the mission of the academic hospitals within Partners, and thus appeared to violate the Duty of Obedience.

This episode certainly does suggest that health care, and the organizations involved in this case, are lead by an "old-boy network," as one person interviewed for the Globe article suggested. More than just an old-boy network, they seem to be lead by chummy members of the power elite whose collective personal interests supersede the missions of the organizations they are supposed to steward. When this happens, is it any surprise that health care becomes less accessible, more expensive, and of lower quality?

Yet challenging the power elite that are increasingly revealed as controlling much of health care seems to be something that one cannot talk about when discussing health care reform. However, failing to address this problem will likely doom any effort, no matter how well intentioned, to improve health care.

Hat tip to and see comments by Alison Bass on the Alison Bass Blog.

ADDENDUM (3 June, 2009) - See also comments by Dr Daniel Carlat on the Carlat Psychiatry Blog.


Anonymous said...

And CITL (Center for Information Technology Leadership), featured in a recent Washington Post report about how the HIT industry via its trade group HIMSS purchased influence and results from CITL, was (according to the CITL website), was chartered by Partners HealthCare in 2002.

Anonymous said...

Tragically many in medicine appear to believe the rules do not apply to them, only the other guy. "Jeffery Wang, chief of spine surgery at UCLA, didn't inform the school of $459,500 he was paid from 2004 through 2007..." per the May 28 WSJ UCLA Surgeon Didn't Report Payments. This money was received on top of his $775,000 salary from UCLA. When is enough, enough?

The companies involved are old friends of HCR, Medtronic, DePuy, and FzioMed. Medtronic immediately claimed no responsibility for doctor reporting,

Responsibility becomes an interesting issue when a doctor endorses a product or procedure without disclosing a financial interest. Today, while watching television, there is always a disclaimer that the celebrity spokesperson is being compensated. Can we expect anything less from medicine?

Steve Lucas

InformaticsMD said...

This is appalling. Medicine needs to be GM'd.

An additional issue comes to mind:

It appears the "hold harmless" and "defect gag" clauses signed by hospital leaders in health IT contracting violate duty of care, duty of loyalty and duty of obedience, in addition to Joint Commission safety standards and fiduciary responsibilities of such executives to both patients and to practitioners.

I wrote about the latter here:

Health IT "Hold Harmless" and Defects Gag Clauses: Have Hospital Executives Violated Their Fiduciary Responsibilities By Signing Such Contracts?

-- SS

Anonymous said...

House of God was well before USNews. It is actually MFBH (Man's Fifth Best Hospital).