Friday, March 26, 2010

The Settlement and Conviction Round-Up: Friday Frequent Flier Edition

It's time for one of our periodic round-ups of legal settlements and convictions of health care organizations.  This time, we report on three frequent fliers, in chronologic order of the appearance of the relevant news stories.

Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton (UMDNJ)

We have written multiple times about the woes of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which lead to a deferred prosecution agreement and operation under the watchful eye of a federal monitor for several years, and resulted in criminal convictions of a former Dean and the state legislative leader he hired.  Scroll through this for far too many details. 

Now, the redoubtable Newark Star-Ledger reports:
Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton has agreed to pay $6.35 million to settle allegations that the facility defrauded Medicare, Justice Department officials said today.

The Mercer County hospital was accused of inflating charges to Medicare patients to obtain bigger reimbursements from the federal government.

'Taxpayer dollars should go towards quality health care, not wasted on fraud and abuse,' said Tony West, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice.

The hospital denied wrongdoing in the settlement, said Skip Cimino, the facility's president and CEO. 'Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital Hamilton has resolved the outstanding Medicare Reimbursement issue with the government and looks forward to continuing its service to the community,' he said.

Note that Robert Wood Johnson Medical School is one of the two medical schools contained within UMDNJ.


I admit that we last discussed Fresenius Medical Care Holdings Inc, a for-profit provider of kidney dialysis services, a while ago, back in 2007. At that time, the company settled charges made by the US Federal Trade Commission that it had tried to restrain competition. Last week, the Tennessean reported:
A long-running whistleblower complaint against the once-Nashville based Renal Care Group has led to a $19.3 million federal court judgment against the acquired dialysis supplier and the German company that bought it four years ago.

The lawsuit, which focused on improper claims submitted to Medicare for home dialysis supplies, named Renal Care Group Supply Co. and Fresenius Medical Care Holdings Inc., as co-defendants. The federal government joined the whistleblower complaint more than two years ago.

Renal Care operated a shell billing company solely to submit claims on behalf of itself in violation of federal law that requires suppliers to be independent of the dialysis facilities where patients are treated, the government said. Even after employees raised concerns, Renal Care continued to operate the billing company because of the 'illicit revenues it created,' the suit said.

One employee wrote: 'I do not wish to go to jail' and felt the company's plan 'was not in the best interests of patients,' said federal Judge William J. Haynes Jr. of Nashville in his ruling.

The billings reportedly occurred over a six-year period beginning in 1999. The Fresenius-Renal Care acquisition closed in 2006 at a sales price of $3.5 billion.


Pfizer Inc, which proclaims itself to be the world's largest pharmaceutical company, has provided an amazing amount of material for Health Care Renewal. In September, 2009, we discussed the huge, that is, $2.3 billion dollar settlement Pfizer made of criminal and civil fraud charges. At that time, this was the fourth settlement of charges of unethical marketing made by Pfizer since 2002.

Since then, we have discussed another fraud settlement in October, 2009, and yet another in January, 2010.

Today, Bloomberg reported:
Pfizer Inc. violated U.S. racketeering law in the marketing of its epilepsy drug Neurontin and should pay $142.1 million in damages, a jury decided.

Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc. and Kaiser Foundation Hospitals claimed in a monthlong trial in federal court in Boston that Pfizer illegally promoted Neurontin for unapproved uses. The insurer said it was misled into believing migraines and bipolar disorder were among the conditions that could be treated effectively with Neurontin, approved in 1993 by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for epilepsy.

'The jury found Pfizer engaged in a racketeering conspiracy over a 10-year period,' Tom Sobol, a lawyer for Kaiser, said after yesterday’s verdict. 'That bodes well for future cases.'

Furthermore, this was a very special kind of verdict:
The jury, which deliberated for two days, found that New York-based Pfizer violated the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, and California’s Unfair Competition Law. Under RICO, the amount of actual damages found by the jury, $47.36 million, will be tripled.

The RICO statute was meant to be used against organized crime.  A jury seems to have found that Pfizer is a "Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organization," that is, the moral equivalent of a crime syndicate.


So this week's settlement and conviction round-up shows the impunity that many health care organizations have exhibited thus far.  Some organizations have been charged again and again with unethical behavior.  Now one of the most frequent of the fliers has been convicted under the RICO law, certainly a new low.

Yet none of the affected organizations in this post, and precious few we have discussed at other times, seem to have suffered any major consequences.  All have paid fines, some which seemed large at the time, but which have never been large enough to seriously threaten the organizations' financial well being.  None of the organizations seems to have lost business, or even much reputation.  Very few of the people within the organizations who approved, lead or implemented unethical behaviors have suffered any sort of negative consequences.

There seems to be something very wrong here.  In the US, we have put much of our health care system in the hands of very large organizations, for-profit and not-for-profit, without holding these organizations and their leaders accountable for their actions.  The results have been increasingly rich leaders who often behave like a new aristocracy, and repeated bad behavior by the organizations they lead. 

Our latest effort at health care "reform" has continued to rely on large private organizations, while so far not adding to their or their leaders' accountability.  In my humble opinion, if we really want to reform health care so as to improve quality, increase access, control costs, and support professionalism, we will have to make our new health care oligarchs accountable.

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