Sunday, February 26, 2012

Three Facets of One Hospital: Coddling the Rich, Hounding the Poor, and Crooked Executives

Juxtaposing three news stories from the past few months raises disturbing questions about the priorities of the leaders of one of the US' more prestigious hospitals.

"Chefs, Butlers, Marble Baths: Hospitals Vie for the Affluent"

 This 21 January, 2012 article from the New York Times focused on the ritzy comforts now provided for wealthy (but perhaps not very sick) patients at the renowned New York Presbyterian/ Weill Cornell Hospital.  It opened,
The feverish patient had spent hours in a crowded emergency room. When she opened her eyes in her Manhattan hospital room last winter, she recalled later, she wondered if she could be hallucinating: 'This is like the Four Seasons — where am I?'

The bed linens were by Frette, Italian purveyors of high-thread-count sheets to popes and princes. The bathroom gleamed with polished marble. Huge windows displayed panoramic East River views. And in the hush of her $2,400 suite, a man in a black vest and tie proffered an elaborate menu and told her, 'I’ll be your butler.'

It was Greenberg 14 South, the elite wing on the new penthouse floor of NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital. Pampering and décor to rival a grand hotel, if not a Downton Abbey, have long been the hallmark of such 'amenities units,' often hidden behind closed doors at New York’s premier hospitals. But the phenomenon is escalating here and around the country, health care design specialists say, part of an international competition for wealthy patients willing to pay extra, even as the federal government cuts back hospital reimbursement in pursuit of a more universal and affordable American medical system.

Additional amenities include:
A waterfall, a grand piano and the image of a giant orchid grace the soaring ninth floor atrium....

the visitors’ lounge seems to hang over the East River in a glass prow and Ciao Bella gelato is available on demand....

An architect who specializes in designing such luxury facilities for hospitals noted:
'These kinds of patients, they’re paying cash — they’re the best kind of patient to have,' she added. 'Theoretically, it trickles down.'

Note that the article also mentioned other hospitals which offered similar luxuries, including Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, and Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.

On the other hand,....

Hounding the Poor for Payment While Getting Government Money for Indigent Care

On 12 February, the New York Times published an article about how New York Presbyterian/ Weill Cornell deals with patients with fewer resources than those discussed above:
For most of her life, Hope Rubel was a healthy woman with good medical insurance, an unblemished credit history and a solid career in graphic design. But on the day an ambulance rushed her to a Manhattan hospital emergency room shortly after her 48th birthday, she was jobless, uninsured and having a stroke.

Ms. Rubel’s medical problem was rare, a result of a benign tumor on her adrenal gland, but the financial consequences were not unusual. She depleted her savings to pay $17,000 for surgery to remove the tumor, and then watched, 'emotionally paralyzed,' she said, as $88,000 in additional hospital bills poured in. Eventually the hospital sued her for the money.

Yet that year the hospital, NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell, had already collected $50.2 million from the state’s so-called Indigent Care Pool to help care for people like Ms. Rubel who have no insurance and cannot pay their bills.

Note that the article also included other New York hospitals that allegedly used aggressive collection tactics on poor patients even though they too collected government money for indigent care. These included NYU Langone Medical Center and State University of New York Downstate Medical Center.

And one more...

Kickbacks for Hospital Executives

For some reason, the only media coverage of this story was not in New York, but by the Philadelphia Inquirer on 13 February, 2012.
The FBI said that ... [Michael Yaron] he received asbestos-removal and construction contracts at New York Presbyterian Hospital for two of his companies, Cambridge Environmental & Construction Corp. and Oxford Construction & Development Corp., because he paid about $2.3 million in kickbacks starting in 2000.

Neither Yaron, a resident of Meadowbrook, Montgomery County, nor his attorneys could be reached for comment yesterday. No one answered at Yaron Properties, his offices on Arch Street in Old City.

Bucks County native Moshe Buchnik, a president of two asbestos-abatement companies, was also convicted after the four-week trial. Santo Saglimbeni, a former vice president of facilities operations at the hospital, and Emilio 'Tony' Figueroa, a former director of facilities operations at the hospital, were also convicted. The FBI said the two former hospital employees steered contracts to Yaron and Buchnik in exchange for the kickbacks.

The Inquirer apparently covered the story because Yaron lives in Philadelphia. Thus it treated the convictions of a former vice president and former director of facilities operations at New York Presbyterian/ Weill Cornell Hospital as afterthoughts.


Thus, in the last six weeks, we have been treated to stories that showed how New York Presbyterian/ Weill Cornell Hospital has devoted substantial resources to create luxury suites for rich patients, presumably because they may pay cash; while simultaneously hounding poor patients who could not pay their large medical bills, even though the hospital was receiving government funds for indigent care; and until recently was employing some executives now shown to have abused their authority.

The themes of the three individual stories should be familiar.

The first story was a reminder that the very rich are different from you and me in how they interact with the health care system. In many ways, the rich and powerful - some might call them the one percent - are personally protected from various aspects of health care dysfunction. For example, here we have discussed how wealthy executives seem to be able to obtain health insurance with benefits unheard of by the more common folk, and here we discussed how the wealthy and influential may get preferential hospital treatment. Thus, even one percenters who are not otherwise involved in health care may not be inclined to lend their support to any efforts to really reform the system.

Aggressive bill collection practices by hospitals which are supposed to serve the poor are also old news. We first discussed such practices occurring in New York City in 2004 - yes, this blog is that old. We also discussed such practices in Baltimore in 2008. Such practices are an example of mission-hostile management.

Finally, we have commented many times about misbehavior by health care executives, and discussed examples of fraud, kickbacks, and health care corruption. It has been unusual, however, for individual executives to actually suffer negative consequences when they induce systemic misbehavior in their organizations. Instead, the results are often legal settlements that only lead to financial penalties on the organizations that are no more than costs of doing business.

However, the juxtaposition of stories that a hospital has been coddling the rich, and simultaneously hounding the poor while it was lead by at least a few criminal executives is unusual. One would think that they should lead to an in-depth look at the leadership and governance of the institution in question, perhaps even to some reform of same. (By the way, one area of interest to such an investigation should be the presence of several former and current leaders of some of the failed financial firms that lead us into the global financial crisis or great recession on the board of that hospital, as we discussed here and here.)

However, so far I seem to be only one to note the inter-relationships of these stories, and their implications, while obvious, therefore remain anechoic.

So I get to repeat.... Health care organizations need leadership that understands, and knowledgeably upholds the organizations' missions and patients and the public's health. The leaders should be subject to incentives that align with these responsibilities, and should not be given opportunities to personally profit from activities hostile to the mission.


Anonymous said...

Of course, Greenberg pavilion was named after billionaire Hank Greenberg (formerly of insurer AIG). His portrait hangs in the lobby.

Rich people can't hang out with the rabble, after all.

Afraid said...

Absolutely heartbreaking. I may need to stop reading HCR to preserve my sanity.

New York Insurance Agency said...

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JPB said...

I don't see much hope for any reform in the medical industry. There are too many vested interests with too much to lose if real reform happens!