Friday, August 26, 2005

A "Black Bag Job" at UMDNJ

The stories about the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) just become more and more surreal. A previous post described the allegations that UMDNJ had offered no-bid contracts, at times requiring no work, to the politically connected; had paid for lobbyists and made political contributions, even though UMDNJ is a state institution; and seemed to be run by political bosses rather than health care professionals. The University had been under investigation by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
This month, the Newark Star-Ledger described how a burglar made away with a variety of records, but almost no cash, and little of pecuniary value, from a UNDMJ administration building. This burglary occurred days after a memo from a UMDNJ staff lawyer asking employees to secure all documents and destroy none of them. The initial story said that the records included documents subpoenaed by the FBI, and personnel records probably also related to the investigation, according to an additional report. The President of UMDNJ, John Petillo, even said that to him "it looks like it may very well have been an inside job." After the burglary, the FBI stepped up their investigation, interviewing several UMDNJ employees in pre-dawn visits.
Later, there was confusion about what was actually taken. Another Star-Ledger article included a statement by UMDNJ officials that "no documents requested of UMDNJ by any outstanding subpoena are missing due to the break-in." Yet, according to the Star Ledger, "stolen personnel records could factor into the federal probe."
The story inspired some colorful editorial comments. A Star-Ledger editorial noted, "at least two definitions come to mind when considering the term 'black bag.' First, there's a doctor's medical bag. Then there's the slang meaning a secret, illegal break-in, usually by a government agency. Now, thanks to the latest jaw-dropping incident at New Jersey's University of Medicine and Dentistry, there's no need to make the distinction between the two."
Doug Forrester, the Republican candidate to be New Jersey Governor, wrote the Secretary of the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) demanding an investigation, "it is clear that nothing short of the full involvement of your office will ensure that federal and state tax dollars are not being misspent, misappropriated, or otherwise misused." (see link here)
An editorial in the Bergen Record described UMDNJ as "a dead skunk in the middle of the road."
The tragedy is, as perusal of Health Care Renewal will show, there are a lot of dead skunks in health care. But each of them seems to be treated as a unique, local problem. In fact, the growing stench from health care organizations' increasingly common leadership problems (including incompence, self-interest, and even corruption) may be the missing link, explaining why costs keep rising, access keeps falling, quality is not progressing, and health care professionals are demoralized.
But cleaning up the mess will take some concerted action by health care professionals to make the public and the policy-makers aware that this stench is everywhere.

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