Friday, April 23, 2010

Explaining Health Care Executives' Impunity - the (Unexplained) Leniency of Prosecutors

On Health Care Renewal, we noted many legal settlements and criminal convictions in cases alleging unethical behavior by health care organizations.  Some organizations have settled, and/or pleaded guilty, and/or been convicted numerous times.  And we have said repeatedly, (e.g., here) such legal actions will not deter unethical behavior by health care organizations until the people who authorize, direct or implement bad behavior fear some meaningfully negative consequences. Relatively small fines imposed on large corporations pain workers on the line and stockholders while sparing the richly paid top hired management and the boards that will not reign them in.

A recent article in the New York Times about a plea agreement in a case in which the Guidant subsidiary of Boston Scientific was alleged to have withheld information about defects in its implantable cardiac defibrillators that were associated with six patient deaths (see most recent post here) throws some light onto the apparent impunity of top health care leaders.  The article reiterated:
In recent years, the Justice Department has won hundreds of millions of dollars in fines from drug and device makers, including a string of cases in which the companies have pleaded guilty to violating federal laws.

But corporate executives rarely face criminal charges in such actions....

The article noted:
“Prosecutors want the money,” said Mr. Fleder, of Hyman, Phelps & McNamara. “And at least in the big money settlements they have had in pharma cases, it appears that prosecutors are willing to settle even if it means forgoing prosecutions against individuals.”

Yet, as we have said,
Short of executives facing prosecution, companies see the hefty financial settlements demanded by the Justice Department as another price of doing business, industry critics say.

There does not seem to be a legal barrier to holding these executives accountable:
... they can be held liable under federal law for regulatory violations that occur on their watch — whether or not prosecutors can prove the executives participated in the wrongdoing or even knew about it.

But if this is so, why have corporate leaders not faced such penalties before? An experienced prosecutor explained it at one level:
A former prosecutor in many drug and medical device-related cases, Michael K. Loucks, said he never charged corporate executives with misdemeanors — which apply in cases when the violations are deemed unintentional — because he believed that being barred from the industry was too harsh a consequence.

“I think that if you are going to take actions that take away someone’s liberty or livelihood, you should have to prove felony conduct,” said Mr. Loucks, who spent over 20 years as an assistant United States attorney in Boston.

This ends up as a very disturbing response. Professionals who hold positions of trust in society, most particularly health care professionals, can lose their livelihood for unprofessional conduct or unethical actions that are not felonies, or even criminal. In health care (and in some other fields, like law), professionals are held to a higher standard that merely avoiding conviction for felonies. (For examples, peruse the lists of doctors and other health care professionals whose licenses were suspended or revoked by state medical boards.)

In our current world of commercialized health care, leaders of large health care organizations can take actions that have as important consequences for peoples' health and safety as the individual actions of doctors and nurses. Why should they not be at risk of the loss of their current livelihood for actions that risk peoples' health and safety?

I do not know why an experienced prosecutor felt that health care executives deserved so much more leniency than health care professionals may receive from medical boards. Maybe in the future we will begin to hold those who authorized or directed unethical actions that risk health and safety accountable.


Anonymous said...

How hypocritical can our government get. Rod a gas station with a gun, but don't kill anyone and get years in jail. Be found in possession of drugs, but again not hurting anyone and get years in jail.

Be a rich executive and deliberately authorize actions which kill people and get a bonus and keep your liberty and the ability to keep working in the industry.

How sickening

Anonymous said...

In government legalspeak, black is white, white is black, and good is bad. Who believes any of it anymore.

We have lost trust because nothing makes sense anymore.