Thursday, March 06, 2008

Money for Nothing: More Guilty Pleas at UMDNJ, but Anechoic Effect Continues

We have done a long series of posts about the troubles at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), the largest US health care university. The university was operating under a federal deferred prosecution agreement under the supervision of a federal monitor (see most recent posts here, here, here, here and here.) We had previously discussed 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. (See posts here, and here, with links to previous posts.) More recent were some reports of amazingly wasteful decisions by UMDNJ managers leading to spending millions of dollars for real-estate that now stands vacant (see post here). There was the indictment of a powerful NJ politician for getting a no-work job in the system, and the indictment of the former dean of the university's osteopathic medicine school for giving him the job (see post here). We found out that UMDNJ had named one of its teaching hospitals for a pharmaceutical company in 2001 (see post here), that the federal monitor accused the dean of one of the UMDNJ campuses of fixing students' grades (see post here), and that the monitor found even more bizarre financial practices at the university (see post here). Although the monitoring ended this year, his most recent report found previously undisclosed problems with the university's research compliance (see post here).

Over a year ago, it was reported (see post here with links to previous posts) that UMDNJ gave paid part-time faculty positions to some community cardiologists in exchange for their referrals to the University's cardiac surgery program, but not in exchange for any major academic responsibilities. Last week, the Newark Star-Ledger provided some f0llowup,

Two cardiologists yesterday admitted signing on to high-paying, no-show jobs at the state's medical university in return for funneling patients to the school's troubled heart surgery program.

As part of the kickback scheme, the two were hired as clinical assistant professors at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, despite having no research credentials. They gave no lectures, taught no classes and acknowledged that they essentially did nothing more than refer patients for cardiac procedures while receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary over three years.

The doctors -- Bakul Desai, 52, of Livingston and Laxmipathi Garipalli, 59, of Colts Neck -- are cooperating with the U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI in a two-year criminal investigation that so far has implicated more than a dozen other part-time cardiologists and several top UMDNJ administrators. The scheme was hatched as part of an increasingly desperate effort to beef up a failing cardiac surgery program then on state probation, according to court records and reports by a federal monitor.

No university officials or any other physicians have been charged, although UMDNJ's chairman of medicine was forced to step down after the initial revelations became public.

In proceedings yesterday before U.S. District Judge Stanley R. Chesler in Newark, the doctors pleaded guilty to embezzling approximately $840,000 in payments from the university. The physicians stood quietly, answering questions with simple 'Yes' or 'No' answers. Both face possible jail time and suspension or revocation of their medical licenses.

U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie said others will be held accountable.

'UMDNJ has a culpable role in all of this,' Christie said. 'Don't take from these two guilty pleas today (the idea) that the institution itself is off the hook, because I will say quite clearly it is not.'

A university spokeswoman said UMDNJ and its board have 'worked aggressively' to restructure and reform the community cardiology program since concerns were first raised in 2006, including a reduction in the number of community cardiologists and changes in salaries and reporting requirements.

Desai and Garipalli should have known from the start that they were taking money for doing nothing, Christie said.

'They continued to do nothing and they continued to get paid in what is a classic New Jersey no-show government job scam,' Christie said during a news conference afterward. 'Extraordinary fraud and waste and abuse and illegality that was occurring with public money at UMDNJ.'

So here is even more documentation about the muck in which UMDNJ is mired.

We will wait and see whether there are more criminal charges in this case. In cases of health care corruption, it often seems that any penalties incurred affect those lowest on the totem pole, in this case, the two unfortunate cardiologists. Those higher up all too often get to walk away. This suggests how health care has come to be run by a power elite that do not have to follow the rules to which mere mortals are subject. I hope Mr Christie is able to buck this trend.

In the UMDNJ case, it seems obvious that someone in the management of UMDNJ had to have been involved in this scheme. It is hard to see how it could have occurred otherwise. So we wait and see if any such people are identified, much less convicted.

Another striking feature of the UMDNJ case is its manifestation of the anechoic effect. I put in a fairly long summary above at the beginning of this post emphasizing the magnitude, importance, and complexity of this case. I did so because many people, including many health care professionals and health policy makers, may be totally unfamiliar with the UMDNJ case. It has only been discussed in the news media in New Jersey (and to some extent the neighboring states of New York and Pennsylvania) and in Health Care Renewal. It has not, repeat not ever been discussed in any medical, health care, health services research, or health policy journal. It has not, repeat not appeared in any prominent medical. (I repeated the relevant searches today, of Medline, Google Scholar, and of the American Medical News, JAMA, and MedPage.)

An entire health care university admitting guilt, being subject to a deferred prosecution agreement, operating under a federal monitor, while all sorts of mismanagement and unethical behavior were uncovered, and NO ONE thinks it is worthy of discussion in any medical, health care, health services research, or health policy journal or newsletter?

The anechoic effect lives. And as long as it lives so vigorously, we make no progress in attacking the pervasive mismanagement, conflicts of interest, and outright corruption afflicting the management of health care. If we cannot even talk about these problems, how are we going to solve them?

Talking about them, however, might disturb the power elite that personally profits so much from their domination of health care. Hence, most health care professionals who are lower in status realize that to even mention such topics in public is to imperil one's career.

But as long as we cannot discuss the recent unpleasantness, things will continue to get even more unpleasant.

Fight the anechoic effect. Take back the future.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Besides shining the light on OUR eyes, do you send copies of important information (such as this) to policy makers in Congress, state's attorneys general (besides though mentioned in the article), etc.

It is so discouraging to the Average Joe that education (and many other things) are being priced out of reach, but wrongdoers--such as these doctors and some administrators at UMDNJ--continue to feed at the trough.