Friday, July 17, 2009

Turning Patients into "Dialysis Dollars"

As we have discussed in previous posts (here and here), prior to a US Supreme Court decision in 1975, physicians (and other professionals) were left free to set up and enforce their own codes of ethics. Until about 1980, the US American Medical Association (AMA) stated,

  • "in the practice of medicine a physician should limit the source of his professional income to medical services actually rendered by him, or under his supervision, to his patients"
  • "the practice of medicine should not be commercialized, nor treated as a commodity in trade"

The Supreme Court decision was widely construed as meaning that any promulgation by US professional organizations of ethical regulations that constrained any economic practices of their members was a violation of anti-trust laws. Thus, in 1980, the AMA dropped their prohibitions against the commercialization of medicine, and nobody, it appeared, tried to change the anti-trust law whose provisions the court interpreted.

A vivid example of how physicians and patients may be caught in the cross-fires among health care corporations in this brave new era of commercialized health care was provided by a recent report in the Denver Post:

News that Fortune 500 company DaVita Dialysis is moving its headquarters to Denver socked its competitors like a punch in the gut.

To its rivals, the kidney-care giant is a bully armed with high-powered attorneys who use lawsuits as tools to intimidate.

DaVita executives counter that they are simply strong competitors — they act as aggressors only when doctors or nurses or other dialysis companies break promises and double-cross them.

Either way, a string of DaVita-filed lawsuits around the country — with two major battles boiling in Denver and Colorado Springs — shed light on the ruthless competition over dialysis patients in an industry that costs Medicare alone more than $8 billion per year.

For years, DaVita's competition in Colorado's two largest cities was almost nonexistent.

The mud began to fly last year when the second-largest group of Denver kidney doctors, called nephrologists, ended their exclusive affiliation with DaVita and partnered with a Massachusetts dialysis company entering the Denver market. Near the same time, the largest nephrology group in Colorado Springs dumped DaVita in favor of Liberty Dialysis, which recently opened two dialysis centers in the city.

DaVita quickly sued doctors in both cities, plus a nurse battling breast cancer who quit her job at a DaVita dialysis center and took one with Liberty.

The hostility between the companies is so intense, it's seeping down to the patients.
'With everything that is going on, you feel like you are becoming sort of a dialysis dollar,'
said Julie Estes, a 53-year- old Colorado Springs woman who spends three days a week, four hours at a time, hooked to a dialysis machine in order to stay alive.

DaVita says it 'paid millions' in 1998 to the doctors of Western Nephrology in Denver to retain them as medical directors of six dialysis centers in the metro area for 10 years. The doctors signed non-compete agreements, promising not to join forces with DaVita rivals or steal any of the California-based company's nurses.

Patients are free by law to choose any dialysis center they want. But dialysis companies bank on the fact that snagging the most popular kidney doctors in town to serve as medical directors of their centers will bring in the most patients — and the most dollars.

Every dialysis center is required by federal law to have a medical director to oversee the care of patients and the water purification system used to flush toxins from the blood of people with failing kidneys.

It's a side job, separate from a nephrologist's practice, that some estimate takes only a couple of hours each week. Companies and doctors declined to say what salary comes with the job, but estimates range from $20,000 to $200,000 per year depending on the competitiveness of the market.

After 10 years with DaVita, when they believed the non-compete agreement was about to expire, Western Nephrology doctors began making plans to become medical directors of shiny-new American Renal Associates dialysis centers opening in Denver with a flat-panel TV and heated, massage chair at every dialysis station.

Four of the new centers are within 3 1/2 miles of existing Da Vita centers. The non-compete agreement that Western Nephrology doctors had signed for DaVita prohibited them from having relationships with competitors within a 35-mile radius.

DaVita contends in its lawsuit that it found out about Western Nephrology's 'secret campaign' because the dialysis company they were working with applied for Medicare billing numbers for five new centers in the Denver area.

In its counterclaim, American Renal Associates accused DaVita of violating federal antitrust law — the company had controlled at least 80 percent of the Denver market. DaVita lagged in updating its dialysis centers until competition was imminent, according to court records. And the claim accused DaVita of 'filing legal actions that are objectively baseless' merely as an 'anticompetitive weapon.'

"Ruthless competition," "lawsuits as a tool to intimidate," "double crosses," flying mud, patients who feel like "dialyis dollars," non-compete agreements, medical directors paid according to "the competitiveness of the market," "secret campaigns?" - is this any way to run a health care system?

As Dr Arnold Relman pointed out (see our previous posts linked above), through the 1960s there was some consensus that health care does not function like a pure market, partially because patients cannot function like steely-eyed consumers. They do not have enough information about the benefits, harms and costs of their possible choices. They have trouble understanding the ambiguity and uncertainty of the medical context. And most important, they may not be capable of the cold cognition the free market model requires, since they may be dealing with choices whose potential outcomes prompt extreme emotions, and in many cases, they may be too frightened, sick, or cognitively impaired to make fully rational choices. In particular, patients with end-stage kidney disease, requiring dialysis to maintain life, seem very different from some ideal, coldly cognitive consumers. So what in the world are they doing caught up in these sorts of disputes?

I submit that real health care reform ought to help physicians and other health care professionals renew their professionalism, and put the provision of health care (and health education and clinical research) back in the hands of people who view these activities as callings, not purely as ways to get rich. Meanwhile, when you are a patient, be prepared to be treated merely like a source of revenue.

PS - Please note that, as we have posted before, the new US "czar" for health care reform is a former member of the board of directors of DaVita.


Peter Schmidt said...

The notion that healthcare might "function as a pure market" begs the question: Does anything function as a pure market? Capital markets, which are as pure a market as any could hope for and in which there are volumes of regulations regarding marketing, advisory services, and purchase and sale transactions still are driven by fear, panic, greed, ignorance or hubris. It is simply impossible to establish a "pure market" for healthcare in which a fair price is paid for fair access to services. I used to say that if HSA plans took off, I'd do a private equity roll-up of ambulance companies: when was the last time anyone asked what their ambulance would cost or if it took insurance?

Anonymous said...

DeParle was also on the Board of Cerner which was involved with the HIT extravaganza that cost the UK NHS 12 billion pounds.

kathryn jones said...

Dean Lawrence Velvel interviewed Dr. Relman, about his book: A Second Opinion - Rescuing America's Health Care. Dr. Relman goes into great detail on the notion of healthcare for profit and the healthcare marketplace. It's a fascinating interview that goes into great detail about many of the points you discuss in your blog... you can find the video on youtube at

Kathryn Jones
Massachusetts School of Law

Disability Insurance for Physicians said...

Wow this does not seem ethical at all. How is DaVita allowed to do this and enforce these non-compete agreements. I thought most of the agreements had a statue of limitations to them. Former employees should be able to pursue a living within a reasonable distance to their home.

im on dialysis said...

I love reading your stuff.