Wednesday, April 20, 2005

State Senator Indicted for "Influence Peddling" to Health Care Organizations

A follow-up of a complex local story in the Providence Journal: John Celona, a former Rhode Island State Senator, was just indicted by a state grand jury for using his public office for private gain (or, as the headline said, "influence peddling.")
He was charged with having three financial relationships with one for-profit and two not-for-profit corporations "while he was in a position to influence legislation of interest to these companies."
Relevant to this blog is that all three organizations are in health care. They are the CVS pharmacy chain, Rhode Island Blue Cross and Blue Shield, a not-for-profit health insurance and managed care organization (and by far the dominant such organization in the state), and Roger Williams Medical Center, a not-for-profit university affiliated medical center. Two counts of the indictment "alleged that Celona violated the state's Code of Ethics by accepting employment with Roger Williams Medical Center and CVS ... which 'did impair his independence of judgment'...." One count alleged that he "uses his public office 'to obtain financial gain' for himself and a TV production company... from Blue Cross."
Kim Keough, a Blue Cross spokesperson, said "obviously, the indictment surrounding Mr. Celona's actions are not allegations against Blue Cross whatsoever." CVS' written statement simply stated that the company "will continue to cooperate with any and all inquiries into this matter." Roger Williams declined comment.
The investigation is not yet over, and some matters may well be referred to a federal grand jury.
H. Philip West Jr, Executive Director of Common Cause of Rhode Island, said "Hopefully, this indictment and the trial will demonstrate to the public some of the ways that some lobbying groups have sought to compromise public officials. Until now, CVS and others who paid Celona have come through unscathed."
A brief Providence Journal editorial added, "Mr. Celona's trial might illuminate how special-interest groups use legislators to promote their interest. Meanwhile, people wonder what will happen to those who 'hired' Messrs. Celona and Irons [another State Senator who resigned under fire for accepting "broker commissions from Blue Cross]."
Providence Journal columnist M. Charles Bakst opined, "What about CVS, Blue Cross, and the Roger Williams Medical Center? These are the entities with which Celona is charged with striking private financial deals. If something smelly happened, isn't it reasonable to think they were as much a part of it as this prominent Democrate who chaired a top Senate committee? The public will find it hard to take if Celona lands in the slammer, but the folks he served, or who allowed themselves to be exploited, skate."
As we have noted before, Blue Cross in Rhode Island was known for its rapid premium increases, stingy payments to doctors, and recent lack of interest in maintaining a dialogue with health care professionals. Last year, its CEO resigned after his huge financial compensation package was revealed by the Providence Journal. It is gratifying that the civil authorities are now starting to address dubious relationships between large health care organizations and politicians. But where are the watchdogs within health care who could address how concentration and abuse of power damages patients and health care professionals?

No comments: