Thursday, July 16, 2015

Turn, Turn, Turn - from Columbia/ HCA Executive, to Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources, to Director of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), to America's Healt Insurance Plans (AHIP)

Marilyn Tavenner's career continues to revolve, er, evolve.

Columbia/ HCA

Marilyn Tavenner worked for Columbia / HCA, now HCA, although details of her job there are sketchy.  Apparently she worked there for a long time, according to a 2015 article in the Nashville Business Journal,

Tavenner work [sic] in a variety of roles for Nashville-based HCA Holdings Inc for 25 years.

She worked long enough to earn a fairly generous pension.  As a 2012 a Washington Times article stated,

In a recent filing with the U.S. Office of Government Ethics, she reported that through a supplemental executive retirement plan at HCA, 'I will continue to receive $162,524 for life.'

There are only sketchy accounts available about what she did at HCA.  The same Washington Times article noted she left in 2006, and

'Ms. Tavenner was a senior executive at HCA who retired from the company over six years ago,' said HCA spokesman Ed Fishbough.

The only description I could find of her duties there was in a Forbes blog post by Bruce Jepsen in 2015,

Tavenner, ... had experience working for investor-owned hospitals and with insurers when she was at HCA....

What does seem certain is that her career at Columbia / HCA overlapped that of CEO Rick Scott, and included some of the time when the company performed actions that led to some serious charges.  In a 2011 Boston Globe blog post, Suzanne Gordon wrote,

While Tavenner worked for HCA, the company was busily enhancing its profit margin by defrauding the Medicare, Medicaid, and TRICARE systems. Terry Leap’s new book, '"Phantom Billing, Fake Prescriptions, and the High Cost of Medicine: Health Care Fraud and What To Do About It,' details HCA’s sorry history. In 2000, for example, HCA paid fines of $840 million for improperly billing the government and in 2003 HCA had to fork over another $631 million.

We discussed the billion dollar plus Columbia / HCA fraud case, which did involve corporate guilty pleas, but like most other legal settlements between the government and big health care organizations, no consequences for any individuals who authorized, planned, or implemented the bad behavior.  There were many allegations that then Columbia / HCA Rick Scott, who is now the Republican Governor of the great state of Florida, created a business culture that enabled the fraud, and even knew about it, but he was never charged with a crime.

Ms Tavenner's role in Columbia / HCA when this was happening was never clear.

Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources

After her work at Columbia / HCA, Ms Tavenner became Secretary of Health and Human Resources for the great state of Virginia.  I could find little news coverage of her time there, much less any suggestion that her previous role with Columbia / HCA might have been viewed as a problem. 

Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS)

In 2010, Ms Tavenner went to work for the US Department of Health and Human Services.  In 2011, Ms Tavenner became acting administrator of CMS.

The only concerns raised about Ms Tavenner's former work with Columbia / HCA at the time she was appointed to run CMS came from the Boston Globe blog post noted above.

Although Tavenner may not have been personally involved in these scandals, it hardly seems wise to put her in charge of the government system her company helped defraud.

Nonetheless she got the position.  In 2014, a Wall Street Journal article from 2014 suggested Ms Tavenner remained cozy with here former boss, former Columbia / HCA CEO,  and now Florida Governor Rick Scott.  It recounted that a CMS contractor had been investigating a Florida nursing home chain,

Medicare investigators began looking into Florida skilled-nursing facilities in 2011 and found what they considered suspicious billing patterns at 33 homes. CMS contractor SafeGuard Services LLC was concerned about how often Florida nursing facilities were charging for the costliest physical and occupational-therapy services, according to documents. About a quarter of the 33 facilities were paid at least 20% more a day than their local rivals, a Journal analysis of Medicare data found.

Three of the 33 are owned by Plaza Health Network. Plaza Chief Executive William Zubkoff previously ran a hospital that was barred in 2006 from billing Medicare and other federal health-care programs following fraud allegations.

But then,

Some of the nursing homes contacted the Florida Health Care Association, a trade group. It asked lawmakers and Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, for assistance, according to the group’s director and emails.

Gov. Scott contacted Ms. Tavenner, according to a person familiar with the investigation. The two had once worked together at hospital operator HCA Holdings Inc., where both had been executives. The governor’s office connected CMS to the Florida Health Care Association. The trade group put an owner of two of the nursing homes, William Kelsey, on the phone with Ms. Tavenner.

Mr. Kelsey told her the prepayment reviews were 'creating a real hardship on the business, staff and residents,' he recalled recently.

On Aug. 22, 2012, Ms. Tavenner ordered the agency’s antifraud officials to release payments for the 33 homes, including the two operated by Mr. Kelsey, according to emails.

A CMS spokesman said Ms. Tavenner got involved to ensure the agency was 'preserving access and quality of care.' The spokesman said Ms. Tavenner 'often discusses issues and concerns with elected officials…including Gov. Scott.'

Of course, Ms Tavenner had a previous relationship with Governor Scott due to their shared time at Columbia / HCA which probably was not like her relationships with other elected officials.  In any case, I could find no real echoes from this story, but Ms Tavenner resigned from CMS in 2015, not completely covered in glory.  A Bloomberg account of her resignation included,

 Marilyn Tavenner, the U.S. official who directed the stumbling roll-out of Obamacare as well as its recovery in recent months, will resign as head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Tavenner said in an e-mail to staff that she’ll step down at the end of next month. She didn’t give her reasons for leaving.

The article suggested that she had her troubles in her role as head of CMS,

 As head of the agency, Tavenner was arguably the person most responsible for construction of, the federal health insurance website that collapsed when it opened for business in October 2013. A UnitedHealth Group unit -- then run by Slavitt -- was hired to lead repairs.

In November of last year, Tavenner also acknowledged that her agency had made a mistake in its calculation of the number of people enrolled under Obamacare for 2014. About 393,000 individuals with both health and dental coverage were 'inadvertently counted twice,' she said in a letter to Representative Darrell Issa, a California Republican whose committee discovered the error.

'Tavenner had to go,' Issa said in a statement today. 'She presided over HHS as it deceptively padded the Obamacare enrollment numbers.'

On the other hand, Forbes blogger Jepsen did suggest that some in industry thought better of her than did Representative Issa.

 Tavenner, who had experience working for investor-owned hospitals and with insurers when she was at HCA, was seen as friendly to the health insurance industry and medical care providers. She had respect among lobbies and among both Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill....

The for-profit health insurance industry seemed to particularly like here,

'Marilyn leaves behind a legacy of leadership at a time of unprecedented change in our health care system,' said Karen Ignagni, chief executive of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the health insurance lobby....  'She was a thoughtful strategist and balanced manager who time and time again rolled up her sleeves to work with all stakeholders on solutions to advance patient care.'

One wonders whether some stakeholders, like AHIP, thought that she was treating them particularly well.  What the average Medicare patient or health care professional thought of her was not explored.

America's Health Insurance Plans (AHIP) (and LifePoint)

This suspicion was bolstered when Ms Tavenner, despite the negative opinions of people, even Republican people like Representative Issa, was named to be Ms Ignangni's successor.   That was announced just yesterday, July 15, 2015.  In Modern Healthcare we saw,

Marilyn Tavenner, the former head of the CMS who stepped down just six months ago, will now lead the country's dominant health insurance lobbying group.

The board of America's Health Insurance Plans on Wednesday named Tavenner as the group's next president and CEO. She replaces Karen Ignagni, who served as AHIP's top lobbyist for 22 years....

This job transition was covered in media outlets, but so far, only Modern Healthcare raised any doubts,

Her decision to head to AHIP raises uncomfortable questions about the dynamics between Washington politics and business. Tavenner will now be representing and lobbying on behalf of some of the country's largest health insurers—the same companies who are regulated by the CMS and are devoting more of their business to Medicare and Medicaid in the form of privatized managed care.

For her role in these dynamics, she likely will be well paid,

Tavenner is primed for a big pay raise as the top leader of AHIP. Ignagni made more than $2 million as AHIP's CEO in 2013. Tavenner made $165,300 last year, according to government records. She is also expected to make more than $300,000 in cash and stock as a board member of LifePoint Health, a for-profit hospital chain based in Brentwood, Tenn. Tavenner joined LifePoint's board in April.


So now Marilyn Tavenner shows she is securely within that club of insiders that run health care in the US.  Some celebrate the US health care "free market," in which one might expect for-profit insurers will fight with provider organizations, like for-profit hospital chains, over payment policies, overseen by government's impartial regulators.  Yet it appears that many of these organizations' leaders come out of the same pool of insider managers, and that individuals can lead or govern organizations that are supposed to be negotiating at arm's length.  For example, note that now Ms Tavenner is leading a for-profit insurance lobbbying group while governing a for-profit hospital chain.

One might think that such arrangements might not be good for the organizations that are supposed to be at arm's length.  One might think such arrangements might be worse for patients, health care professionals and the public at large.  If the large organizations that are supposed to be competing and negotiating in the market are led out of a single cozy in group, maybe instead of competing and negotiating they will mainly be about benefiting their leaders.

As we wrote before,...

 the constant interchange of health care insiders among government, large health care corporations, and the lobbying and legal firms which represent them certainly suggests that health care, like many other sectors, seems to be run by an amorphous group of insiders who owe allegiance neither to government nor industry.

However, those who work in government are supposed to be working for the people, and those who work on health care within government are supposed to be working for patients' and the public health.  If they are constantly looking over their shoulders at potential private employers who might offer big checks, who indeed are they working for?

Attempts to turn government toward private gain and away from being of the people, by the people, and for the people have no doubt been going on since the beginning of government (and since the Constitution was signed, in the case of the US).  However, true health care reform  would require curtailing the severe sorts of conflicts of interest created by the revolving door.

Real heath care reform would require  multiyear cooling off periods before someone who worked in the commercial world can get a job in a government whose work has direct effect on his or her previous employer or industry sector, and before someone who worked in government whose work had direct effect on a particular economic sector can accept a job for a company in that sector.

But real reform might spoil the party for those who transit the revolving door, so don't expect such reform to come easily.... 


Anonymous said...

Corruption at the highest levels.

Soft Corruption IS the Issue said...

It is commonplace. When asked the right way, polsters find that its the anti-corruption that gets the vote.