We have a verdict in the largest legal suit, $110M, ever brought before the court in Stark County, Ohio. The issue at hand has been the payment of fees by a nonprofit hospital (Aultman) through its for-profit insurance subsidiary (AultCare) to switch clients to this hospital's insurance plan. Aultman is the only in program hospital in our area.
Confidentiality agreements have kept this practice in place for a total of 12 years, with knowledge of the arrangement only recently becoming public.
First the back story: What is today Mercy Medical Center is owned by The Sisters of Charity. This hospital had popular community and business support. Wishing to get away from the business of running a hospital and focus on philanthropy, half of the hospital was sold to Columbia Health in 1996.
Columbia traded on the name and community support and followed a common course of action of reducing staff and maintenance in an effort to maximize profit. Realizing their mistake, the Sisters entered into another partnership with a nonprofit in 1999 and have recently been able to regain total control of the facility.
During this time Aultman Hospital, owned by The Aultman Health Foundation, was able to leverage this discontent into a massive expansion of both its physical plant and position in the community.
Unknown to the community at large this growth was being driven by questionable business practices:
The case revolves around allegations by Mercy that Aultman 'bribed' brokers with extra payments – in some cases, as large as $1 million – to persuade employer groups to switch to Aultman’s insurance plans, AultCare and McKinley Life Insurance.
These payments weren’t disclosed to the brokers’ clients or on federal tax forms that non-profits must fill out to maintain their tax-exempt status, lawyers told jurors in court.(1)
The point of contention was the payment of to a select group of brokers of what amounted to a kick-back, without notifying their customers of the additional payments.
We then find:
The leader of Aultman Health Foundation on Tuesday defended the nonprofit’s practice of using tax-exempt money to fund confidential payments to select insurance brokers. (2)
I guess it is ok as long as nobody knows, and the 65,000 people covered under this scheme should be happy.
We then find that Mercy’s CEO:
... said he first learned of Aultman’s program that gave extra payments to select brokers who switched clients from other insurance companies in a 2004 Akron Beacon Journal article. (3)
The Aultman CEO responded:
Roth said those payments were part of a business strategy to save area businesses money by sharing the results of Aultman Hospital’s cost cutting measures since the 1980’s.
'We want to pass to pass that low cost onto the community,' Roth said. (4)
It is interesting to note that Aultman changed the structure of its agreements with doctors to allow for them, the doctors, to receive co-pays directly. It was also revealed Aultman was paying at least one large medical group direct payments for exclusive referrals.
So now we come to the jury’s decision: $6.1M for Mercy, both sides claim victory. Mercy feels it will change the way Aultman does business.
Aultman plans to continue business as usual and won’t make any changes as a result of the verdict, President and Chief Executive Edward Roth said. (5)
In our small market, the dollars are so large in health care that a multi-million dollar settlement will not change behavior. The use of tax-exempt funds to pay kickbacks and bribes is ignored and there is no public out cry, only Aultman filing another suit to have the verdict set aside.
Altman claimed it needed the payments to be competitive with Columbia. This, win at any cost business attitude, has taken over great parts of medicine reducing what was once a proud profession into a simple process of number crunching.
Aultman focused time and time again during the trial on its size, the largest employer in Stark County, and its position in the community. This is no excuse for corrupt behavior.
Has health care become so corrupt, the dollars so large, that a little corruption is ok, as long as it does not hurt the bottom line?
Follow on radio reports made it very clear Aultman would suffer no financial hardship due to the verdict and there would be no change in services. Business would continue as usual.
(All from The Akron Beacon Journal)
1. April 3, 2010. Canton hospital exchange charges in court.
2. April 14, 2010. Aultman executive defends payments.
3. April 23, 2010. Mercy CEO testifies in court.
4. May 5, 2010/ Aultman defends “unique” incentives.
5. June 9, 2010. Jury awards Mercy $6.1 million.