The articles highlighted a series of concerns about quality problems affecting the chain's patients.
First, a New York Times article described problems in the care of cardiac patients.
HCA, the largest for-profit hospital chain in the United States with 163 facilities, had uncovered evidence as far back as 2002 and as recently as late 2010 showing that some cardiologists at several of its hospitals in Florida were unable to justify many of the procedures they were performing. Those hospitals included the Cedars Medical Center in Miami, which the company no longer owns, and the Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point. In some cases, the doctors made misleading statements in medical records that made it appear the procedures were necessary, according to internal reports.
More specifically, at one hospital, cardiac catheterizations seemed to occur to often: "about half the procedures ... were determined to have been done to patients without significant heart disease." Two patients at another hospital had severe adverse effects after cardiac procedures that seemed unnecessary in retrospect. There were "incidents at Bayonet Point where patients were treated for multiple lesions, or blockages, even when 'the second lesion (or third) did not appear to have significant disease....' [In] 'several cases' ... patients were treated even though their arteries did not have significant blockages." Then,
HCA brought in an external company, CardioQual Associates of Franklin, Mich., in 2004 to examine medical records from Bayonet Point. In a confidential memo prepared in December 2004 and reviewed by The Times, CardioQual concluded that as many as 43 percent of 355 angioplasty cases, where doctors performed invasive procedures to open up a patient’s arteries, were outside reasonable and expected medical practice. Worse, the investigation revealed that some physicians had indicated in medical records that the patients had blockages of 80 to 90 percent when a later, more scientific analysis of a sampling of cases revealed the blockages had ranged from 33 to 53 percent.
Possible Undertreatment of Acute Illness
Then, a second NY Times article found that
HCA decided not to treat patients who came in with nonurgent conditions, like a cold or the flu or even a sprained wrist, unless those patients paid in advance. In a recent statement, HCA said that of the six million patients treated in its emergency rooms last year, 80,000, or about 1.3 percent, 'chose to seek alternative care options.'
Of course, the problem with this approach is that it is not always possible to tell how severe an acute illness is without a more complete evaluation than can be done in emergency department triage. There is anecdotal evidence that HCA turned away some patients who actually had serious illness:
Regulators in several states have taken HCA hospitals to task over screening out patients too aggressively, including situations where the screening missed serious conditions.
In early 2010, an uninsured patient who entered HCA’s TriStar Skyline Medical Center in Nashville, complaining of 'pain when breathing,' was sent away. An hour and a half later, at another hospital, the same patient was found to have pneumonia, according to the results of a Medicare investigation. Regulators cited Skyline for having 'failed to ensure that an appropriate medical screening examination was conducted.'
This year, the Office of Inspector General fined HCA’s Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., $38,000 for sending home a feverish patient with an artificial heart valve. Two days later, the patient reappeared with the flu and severe respiratory problems. The following day, he died.
Undertreatment of Bed Sores
The second Times article also suggested that decreased nurse staffing at HCA hospitals lead to worse treatment of bed sores (decubitus ulcers):
Experts say there is often a direct correlation between bedsores and the quality of hospital staff levels. 'Staffing is critical,' said Courtney H. Lyder, the dean at the UCLA School of Nursing and an expert on wound care. 'When you see high levels of wounds, you usually see a high level of dysfunctional staff,' he said.
HCA owned eight of the 15 worst hospitals for bedsores among 545 profit-making hospitals nationwide, each with more than 1,000 patient discharges, tracked by the Sunlight Foundation using Medicare data from October 2008 to June 2010. HCA’s West Houston Medical Center and CJW Medical Center in Richmond, Va., landed near the top of the list.
HCA says it has increased its nursing staff at its hospitals each year over the last five years. But an examination of lawsuits shows bedsore problems have been persistent at several HCA facilities. In Portsmouth Regional Hospital in New Hampshire, a 60-year-old woman died in 2009 after her bedsores went untreated for three days and became infected, according to a wrongful-death lawsuit filed in the spring of 2011 in federal court against the hospital.
One HCA hospital
was cited twice by Florida regulators, in 2008 and 2010, for having inadequate numbers of nurses on its staff to oversee wound care for patients. During the 2010 examination, regulators noted that Memorial had less than the equivalent of two full-time nurses who specialized in wound care to treat the 132 patients who required aid.
'The system of treatment for wound care places patients at risk for additional medical complications,' the examiners said.
So, in summary, there is reason for concern about overtreatment of cardiac disease, and undertreatment of acute illness and bedsores at HCA hospitals. However, no hospital and no doctor is perfect. Everyone makes mistakes, and many decisions can be questioned in retrospect. Instead
Putting Money Ahead of Quality
Instead, the articles suggested they were part of a pattern in which concerns about short-term revenue trumped concerns about patient care.
Cardiac Procedures to Generate More Revenue
The article about cardiac care noted that one of the physicians who allegedly was doing too many cardiac procedures
was highlighted by the hospital in a 2009 business plan as being the most profitable doctor at the facility. 'Our leading EBDITA MD,' the plan described him. (Ebitda, or earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, is a measure of corporate earnings.)
On the other hand, according to the Tampa Bay Times, some of the doctors whom HCA suspended for doing too many percutaneous cardiac revascularization procedures charged that the issue was that
far from concern over the cost of stents — Bayonet Point was upset that stents were replacing more expensive bypass surgeries.
The first NY Times article also suggested that HCA executives did their best to keep the issue quiet so as not to affect revenue. First,
HCA declined to provide evidence that it had alerted Medicare, state Medicaid or private insurers of its findings, or reimbursed them for any of the procedures that the company later deemed unnecessary, as required by law.
HCA also declined to show that it had ever notified patients, who might have been entitled to compensation from the hospital for any harm.
The Times uncovered internal HCA communications suggesting that obfuscation was deliberate:
In January 2005, David Williams, who was then the chief executive of Bayonet Point, wrote in an e-mail: 'Clearly, we have protected ourselves under the peer review umbrella and have released very little information.' The recipients of his message included Dan Miller, who then oversaw HCA’s hospitals in western Florida, and Charles R. Evans, a Nashville executive who was president of all of HCA’s hospitals on the eastern side of the country.
In his response, Mr. Evans thanked Mr. Williams for the update and asked for a 'summary as to the business impact.'
Furthermore, as the last sentence above indicated, review of internal emails suggested that executives were more worried about revenue than quality of care or patient outcomes:
A review of those communications reveals that rather than asking whether patients had been harmed or whether regulators needed to be contacted, hospital officials asked for information on how the physicians’ activities affected the hospitals’ bottom line.
Avoiding Caring for Poor Patients in the Emergency Department
On the other hand, the impetus for triaging away apparently less acutely ill patients from the Emergency Department was to avoid such patients who could not pay. The second NY Times article noted there was a way for supposedly less ill patient to get Emergency Department treatment,
Patients whose ailments were not deemed urgent were told to go somewhere else, like a free clinic, or that they could be treated if they paid the co-payment for their insurance or around $150 in cash.
In addition, there is reason to think that HCA management pushed health care professionals to put off increasing numbers of patients, regardless of their clinical problems,
Several former emergency department doctors at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center in Fort Pierce, Fla., said they frequently had felt compelled to override the screening system in order to treat patients.Also,
'Physicians had a really, really hard time with it,' said Dr. J. Patrick Pearsall, who worked for an emergency physician group based in Houston that worked in HCA hospitals. When the doctors failed to meet the hospital’s goals for how many patients should be considered emergencies, 'they really started putting pressure on.'
One emergency room doctor who worked at an HCA Florida hospital said doctors had been told they had targets to hit. The doctors’ concerns about the screening policy were acknowledged in an e-mail reviewed by The Times that was sent to the doctors at the hospital in early 2008 by an outside company that worked in the emergency room.
The doctors were told HCA’s regional executives were 'quite intent on pursuing this program at least for the time being and fully expects us to comply. Their expectations are that approximately 15 percent of all patients are to be screened and of those screened no more than 35 percent overridden.'
Keep in mind that variations in patient populations over time and across geographic areas means that the proportions of more and less severely ill patients showing up at individual Emergency Departments will vary substantially. Pressuring health care professionals to turn away a minimum percentage of people will make it very likely that at some times severely acutely ill patients will not be seen.
So it appears that at HCA, patients sometimes were overtreated, and sometimes were undertreated, and that executives trying to increase revenue may have been more responsible for both than simple human error.
Finally, there is reason to think that the take-over of HCA by private equity (that is, leveraged buy-out) firms further increased the for-profit corporation's emphasis on short-term revenue leading to worsening quality of care.
Private Equity Pushed for Even More Short-Term Revenue
The second NY Times article first noted,
During the Great Recession, when many hospitals across the country were nearly brought to their knees by growing numbers of uninsured patients, one hospital system not only survived — it thrived.
In fact, profits at the health care industry giant HCA, which controls 163 hospitals from New Hampshire to California, have soared, far outpacing those of most of its competitors.
The big winners have been three private equity firms — including Bain Capital, co-founded by Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential candidate — that bought HCA in late 2006.
HCA’s robust profit growth has raised the value of the firms’ holdings to nearly three and a half times their initial investment in the $33 billion deal.
The financial performance has been so impressive that HCA has become a model for the industry.
Note that the private equity firms extracted a considerable amount of cash from HCA at the time they turned it back into a publicly held for-profit corporation:
In 2010, buoyed by robust growth in profit, HCA was able to issue billions of dollars in debt that was used to pay funds overseen by the three buyout firms nearly $1 billion in dividends — each. In the spring of 2011, in one of the most closely watched public offerings since the financial crisis, HCA became a public company once again. Its three buyout owners each sold another $500 million worth of stock, allowing them to recoup all their initial investment.By thus increasing the new public corporation's debt load, they further increased pressure on its executives to bolster short-term revenue.
As HCA’s profits and influence grew, strains arose with doctors and nurses over whether the chain’s pursuit of profit may have, at times, come at the expense of patient care.
Summary: Why No Hospital Should be For-Profit?
Among all developed countries, I believe only the US has such a high proportion of for-profit hospitals, and physicians employed by for-profit corporations to take care of patients.
However, in summary, this case shows there is evidence that
- The management of one for-profit hospital chain was pushed to focus even more on short-term revenue by a leveraged buy-out engineered by private equity firms
- This focus lead management to pressure health care professionals to increase revenue, even if that required over- or under-treating patients
- The resulting over- and under-treatment likely harmed patients.
As a Tampa Bay Times editorial put it,
the allegations suggest a disturbing pattern of endangering patients, and they again expose the weaknesses of a health care system driven by volume and profit rather than efficiencies and patient outcomes.
In a column in Forbes, Steve Denning warned,
The hospitals owned by private equity are making money in the short-term at the expense of Medicare and the economy. But when the private equity firms depart, as they plan to do, they leave the hospitals with a load of debt, dispirited doctors and nurses, and a bankrupt Medicare system, with serious questions as to whether overall care has been maintained, let alone improved.
The current bonanza for private equity from milking Medicare is a bubble that cannot be sustained.
We have noted how health care organizations have increasingly been "financialized," lead by executives who put short-term revenue generation ahead of all other goals, including good patient care. Furthermore, hospitals are increasingly likely to be formally for-profit, and hence likely to be lead by such executives. Worse, hospitals are increasingly likely to be owned by private equity firms, further increasing the emphasis on short-term money making. Even worse, physicians are now more frequently employed by such organizations, which may pressure them to do what it takes to increase revenue, no matter what the effect on patients' and the public's health.
The probably effects on the quality of care, access, and costs are obvious.
In my humble opinion, before the health care bubble bursts, we need to challenge the notion that direct health care should ever be provided, or that medicine ought to be practiced by for-profit corporations. Before market fundamentalism became so prominent, many stated prohibited the corporate practice of medicine, and the American Medical Association forbade the commercialization of medicine. It is time to heed that wisdom. I submit that we will not be able to have good quality, accessible health care at an affordable price until we restore physicians as independent, ethical health care professionals, and until we restore small, independent, community responsible, non-profit hospitals as the locus for inpatient care.
As Todd Hixon wrote, surprisingly in Forbes,
I believe a big part of the answer lies in changing the idea that health care should be a path to riches. There are professions, like university teaching and research, where a big part of the motivation is helping people and gaining respect in the community. If we could shift the balance for health care providers in that direction, solving problems like the one manifest at HCA would be a lot more possible.
True health care reform will require an end to market fundamentalism in health care.
Note - See also comments by Paul Levy in the Not Running a Hospital Blog.