Tuesday, July 07, 2009

NY State Legislator Pleads Guilty to Selling His Services to Medical Center

We have posted about cases in which hospitals or academic medical centers hired legislators to promote their political agendas. In one case in 2006, a former Rhode Island state legislator pleaded guilty to selling his influence to a local medical center, which submitted to a deferred prosecution agreement, and whose CEO was later convicted of conspiracy and fraud. (This conviction has been appealed.) In another case in 2008, a former New Jersey state legislator was convicted of fraud for selling his influence to a state health care university and academic medical center, which also had been operating under a deferred prosecution agreement.

The latest version of this type of scandal appeared towards the end of last month in the New York Times:

Saying that he knew his 'conduct was illegal and wrong,' a longtime Democratic member of the New York State Assembly, Anthony Seminerio, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to abusing his position by soliciting for himself an amount prosecutors estimated at $500,000.

Federal prosecutors said that for the last decade he traded upon his office, receiving 'corrupt payments' from people or organizations that had business before the state and sometimes threatening those who resisted his requests for money.

The payments were funneled into a company called Marc Consultants that Mr. Seminerio created to hide the income, prosecutors said.

Mr. Seminerio told Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in Federal District Court in Manhattan that one of the organizations that paid him for wielding his political influence was Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, in Queens. It was the first public mention of Jamaica Hospital, which before the hearing had been referred to in court papers merely as 'a hospital in New York City.'

Appearing before the judge around noon on Wednesday, Mr. Seminerio, unshaven but wearing a blazer and a tie, declared in a firm voice that he was guilty of the charge of honest services fraud. In a brief statement he acknowledged that on July 10, 2008, he 'promoted the interests' of Jamaica Hospital in connection with state business and did not divulge that he had received payments from the hospital.

'My conduct had the effect of depriving others of honest services,' he said. Prosecutors stated that the hospital had paid Marc Consultants about $310,000 and that 'a separate, Medicaid-managed health care plan' affiliated with the hospital paid another $80,000. At the request of hospital officers, prosecutors said, Mr. Seminerio acted as an advocate with legislators and lobbied on their behalf with executive branch officials.

A criminal complaint states that on numerous occasions Mr. Seminerio 'took action in his capacity as a member of the Assembly to benefit the hospital at the same time that he was receiving payments from the hospital.'

The complaint also details recorded conversations in which hospital officials asked Mr. Seminerio to intervene in state budget decisions and in which Mr. Seminerio urged a Health Department official to help Jamaica Hospital take over another hospital.

There once was a time when health care was a calling, and when hospitals were considered charitable organizations which served the sick, and often the poor. Health care professionals and institutions were once held to a higher standard than, say, those who collected the garbage.

Jamaica Hospital Medical Center still proclaims its mission to be:

To serve our patients and the community in a way that is second to none

It is not clear how that squares with "corrupt payments" to a state legislator.

In my humble opinion, for health care to resolve its current crises, it will have to again be held to a higher standard. If we do not challenge the pervasive conflicts of interest within and across health care, and the outright corruption that has infected many health care institutions, none of the proposed manipulations of health care financing will make much of a dent in ever rising costs, declining access, or degrading quality.

But for this to happen, health care professionals and policy leaders will have to acknowledge how low the current standards are. As long as cases like those noted above are mentioned only in the local news media, but are not subjects for polite conversation in professional and policy venues, many will be able to cling to the illusion that things are not so bad.


Anonymous said...

The July 8 Akron Beacon Journal article Hearing scheduled for university trustee, highlights Jack Morrison Jr., a University of Akron Trustee, secretary of the Summit County Republican Party, chairman of the Summit County Board of Elections and president of Amer Cunningham law firm.

The charge is that Mr. Morrison lent money to his son, also an attorney, who then purchased a house that was sold to the university the following year at a 44 percent profit.

So here we have a prominent university trustee, lawyer, and politician engaging in a questionable commercial act who then claims this is all just politically motivated.

What message does this send to the broader professional community of doctors and lawyers who also have a relationship with the university: Don't get caught?

Steve Lucas

Robert Crausman MD said...

The fundamental problem is that physicians no longer have a dominant role in the governance of healthcare institutions. Corruption is the inevitable consequence of the corporate practice of medicine. Businessmen do not answer to the same basic ethics that guide physicians. In the patients vs. profits calculation the rival ethics lead to vastly different conclusions.