On its face, it seemed reasonable enough: a bone marrow registry sending recruiters to malls, ballparks and other busy sites to enlist potential donors.
But the recruiters were actually flirtatious models in heels, short skirts and lab coats, law enforcement officials say, asking passers-by for DNA swabs without mentioning the price of the seemingly simple procedure. And the registry, Caitlin Raymond International, was paying up to $60,000 a week for the models while billing insurance companies up to $4,300 per test.
In New Hampshire, where prosecutors say thousands of people appeared to have provided swabs, the attorney general is investigating the registry’s marketing and billing practices. The registry is a nonprofit subsidiary of UMass Memorial Medical Center in Worcester, which said Thursday that it had stopped seeking donors in New Hampshire and using models altogether.
James T. Boffetti, the state’s senior assistant attorney general, said the registry had hired models based on their photographs and had given them 'explicit instructions' to wear heels and short skirts.
The recruitment seemed to be based more on in-your-face sex appeal than an appeal to altruism:
'The models worked the crowds, if you will,' he said. 'We were told basically they would engage a lot of younger men with some sort of flirtatious thing: ‘Hey, don’t you want to be a hero? Come on, do this!’ '
What the models did not tell their, um, prospects was that apparent acts of charity would result in a hefty bill to the volunteers' health insurance:
They got people to do this without telling them it could be a charge of $4,300 against their insurance
To put that charge in perspective, as reported by Liz Kowalczyk in the Boston Globe:
In the last decade, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island became the only states where legislators mandated insurers pay for bone marrow testing.
Nationally, most hospitals and other donor-recruitment organizations do not charge for the testing, said Michael Boo, chief strategy officer for the National Marrow Donor Program. The test typically involves a DNA analysis to determine whether the donor is a match for anyone on the bone marrow transplant waiting list.
Boo estimates it costs the organization about $100 to test and recruit each potential donor, although he said that, as the largest bone marrow donor registry in the United States, the program gets a volume discount from labs for the DNA analysis. The organization has about 8 million registered donors. (The Caitlin Raymond registry has 185,000 potential donors.)
But in New Hampshire, UMass Memorial charges self-insured employers, like the city of Manchester, that do not have a negotiated rate upwards of $4,000 per person for testing. It generally has charged insurers like Blue Cross and Harvard Pilgrim $700 to $1,500 person for testing, said James Boffetti, senior assistant attorney general in New Hampshire and chief of the consumer protection bureau.
'We haven’t been able to get a clear explanation from UMass about the reasons for the costs,' he said. As for the unusual recruiting, he said, 'they’re doing it because they are making money on this test.'
Finally, although the medical center sent initial bills for the tests to volunteers' insurers, sometimes the volunteers got stuck with part of the bill. As reported by National Public Radio:
Marc Ferland, a 45-year-old father of two in Bow, N.H., stopped at a registry booth after giving blood at a Red Cross drive. A month later, he received a bill that said he owed more than $2,000 to cover the costs of the test. When he complained, the amount was cut to $760, which he paid out of a health care account offered by his employer.
'When you take money out of my spending account, that's a cost to me,' Ferland said.
So here is an almost unbelievable example of how the a culture of marketing gone amok has taken over an academic health care institution. It seems darkly humorous now that the UMass Memorial Medical Center includes in its stated values:
Staff members of UMass Memorial Medical Center are committed to:
* Excelling at patient-centered care
Achieving patient-focused excellence through the highest standards of quality care, patient safety and patient satisfaction
* Acting with integrity
Dealing honestly, fairly and responsibly with each other
* Respecting one another
Valuing the contributions, ideas and opinions of our coworkers, colleagues, patients and partners
* Contributing to the community
Partnering with the community at large and with other health care and social agencies in meeting the health needs of the community
* Improving through teamwork and systems thinking
Working to continuously improve ourselves, our processes and our patient services through cooperation and thinking as an integrated health care system
* Embracing accountability
Holding ourselves, our coworkers and our leaders to the highest standards of performance
Integrity? Partnering with the community? - maybe that is what some of the recruits were hoping for, in a sense. Embracing accountability? Maybe the new vision statement should be "a sucker is born every minute."
Again, it would be funny if it were not so tragic. Here we see a major academic medical institution debased into something that a Las Vegas casino might frown upon.
As we have noted ad infinitum, however, previous attempts at health care reform have not dealt with how the "greed is good" culture of Wall Street, run by amoral financiers and fueled by cynical marketers, has taken over health care. Until we get health care leaders who really do care about patients, and about the integrity of teaching and research, the show will go on. Meanwhile, the suckers better watch out.