As reported by television station WRCB in Chattanooga, TN,
HCA Inc., one of the nation's largest private hospital chains, has agreed to pay $16.5 million to settle alleged violations of the Ethics in Patient Referrals Act (also known as the Stark law), the False Claims Act, and other federal and state laws and regulations in connection with the operation of its subsidiary, Parkridge Medical Center, Inc., in Chattanooga.The issue here were allegations that HCA and its subsidiaries were paying physicians extra so that they would refer patients to an HCA hospital. Obviously, physicians are supposed to put each patient's interests ahead of extraneous considerations, and hence should make referral decisions based on the patients needs, and the likely benefits and harms of the referral, not the amounts the physicians might make from such payments.
In addition, Parkridge Medical Center has entered into a comprehensive five-year Corporate Integrity Agreement with the Office of Inspector General of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS-OIG) to ensure its continued compliance with federal health care benefit program requirements.
As alleged in the settlement agreement, during 2007, HCA, through its subsidiaries Parkridge and HCA Physician Services (HCAPS), entered into a series of financial transactions with a physician group, Diagnostic Associates of Chattanooga, through which it provided financial benefits intended to induce the physician members of Diagnostic to refer patients to HCA facilities.
The financial benefits included lease of office space from Diagnostic at a rental rate well in excess of fair market value to meet the mortgage obligations of the Diagnostic members and release of Diagnostic members from a separate lease obligation. These financial arrangements violated the Ethics in Patient Referrals Act and the Anti-Kickback Statute – laws designed to protect patients as well as the integrity of government-funded health care benefit programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, TRICARE, and TennCare.
Referrals for particular services can be very lucrative for hospitals. So this settlement seems to provide more evidence that to get profitable referrals, HCA was willing to subvert physicians' values by paying physicians to induce to make what might have been the wrong decisions for individual patients. Of course, in this situation some physicians were hardly blameless, since they were also willing to set aside their values to receive the payments that generated those referrals.
This fits with the thesis we advanced last month. While hospitals are supposed to have a mission to put care of the sick ahead of all else, it appears that for-profit hospitals, and especially those owned by private equity are more likely to put short-term revenue ahead of patient care.
As an aside, while this settlement provides useful information, do not think of it as a solution to the immediate problem.
As we have frequently asserted, it is doubtful that the relatively small payment and the relatively unlikely to be enforced corporate integrity agreement imposed in this settlement will change the company's behavior, in the absence of any negative consequences for the people who authorized, directed or implemented the bad behavior. HCA once made a $1.7 billion fraud settlement, at the time the biggest such settlement ever made (see this post). However, the company's CEO at the time, Rick Scott, left the firm with a golden parachute and no negative consequences, and is now Governor of Florida. If that previous huge settlement did not deter the more recent bad behavior in the absence of any penalties for company executives, why should we expect that the current comparatively tiny settlement also in the absence of such penalties will have any effect?
As we have now said many, many times, we will not deter unethical behavior by health care organizations until the people who authorize, direct or implement bad behavior fear some meaningfully negative consequences. Real health care reform needs to make health care leaders accountable, and especially accountable for the bad behavior that helped make them rich.
Furthermore, as I wrote last month, 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.