Friday, March 18, 2011

Conflicts of Interest, Government Leaders, and Private Health Care Organizations

There seems to be a small surge of stories about conflicts of interest regarding health care affecting government leaders who can affect health care. 

The Institute of Medicine defined conflict of interest in medicine as "circumstances that create a risk that professional judgments or actions regarding a primary interest will be unduly influenced by a secondary interest."  So we will summarize these stories by first showing what each leader's secondary interests are, and then show how they may influence carrying out his leadership responsibilities.  (We used "his" because all examples are of male leaders.)

Florida: Governor Scott and Solantic

Rick Scott, the new Florida Governor, apparently still has strong ties to a for-profit chain of urgent care centers, as reported by the Palm Beach Post:
As Florida Gov. Rick Scott reorganizes health agencies, cuts spending and pushes for new free-market health policies, his ownership of Solantic, the urgent care chain, increasingly poses conflict of interest questions.

Solantic co-founder Karen Bowling says Scott has taken steps to distance himself from the chain. He stopped regular business calls with her after he was elected.

'I don't talk to him anymore. Not since November. Really not much since April,' Bowling said.

Scott left the privately held company's board of directors in January 2010, during his campaign.

But the most important step the governor must take to avoid a conflict of interest, some ethics experts say, is to divest his Solantic interests.

In January, Scott did transfer his Solantic stock - to his wife.

There were obvious questions raised whether this transfer mitigated the conflict of interest:
Scott's efforts to distance himself appear to be designed to meet the letter of Florida ethics laws, if not the spirit.

They may not succeed if challenged, warned legal and ethics expert Marc Rodwin, a law professor at Suffolk University who is the author of several books on health care and conflicts of interest.

'Placing his ownership in the name of his wife is not an effective way to control for conflicts of interest and not generally accepted because they are personally related,' Rodwin said.

Rodwin said Scott's blindness to Solantic's daily business decisions likewise does not relieve his conflict.

'His family still benefits from it,' he said.

There are a number of issues before Florida government about which there appears to be a risk that Governor Scott's actions could be unduly influenced by his family's ownership interest in Solantic:
From the moment he was elected, Scott has said government has no business providing primary care.

His budget proposal eliminated state support for the clinics. The county's health department director warns that may leave 30,000 adults without a medical home.

Scott's decisions as governor are likely to affect Solantic in other, perhaps more significant ways.

Scott's budget would curb growth in Medicaid spending, the state-federal safety net insurance program, by requiring most recipients to join private HMOs. Solantic accepts Medicaid HMO reimbursements, but not state Medicaid, so adding clients could broaden the clinics' customer base.

But the greatest benefit for Solantic could come from Scott and other Republican governors' lobbying efforts in Washington.

They want the Obama administration to give states waivers from the Affordable Care Act, and provide them with a massive block grant to expand health coverage in the way they deem best for their states. Money slated to go to business' health insurance tax credits and lower income consumers' insurance subsidies could pay for the grants - to the tune of billions.

Obama has said he's willing to give the states waivers on a speeded-up timetable. His administration Thursday published new rules on how states could get that waiver.

Scott's health policy adviser Michael Cannon, an economist with the Cato Institute in Washington, favors giving consumers health vouchers that they would use either as cash for direct-pay medical care or to buy insurance.

The possible effect on Solantic and similar clinics could be huge, said Rodwin, the legal ethics expert.

'You have a major owner-operator of a set of clinics on the state level, and a major policy figure on a state level, making major changes that affect whether that kind of business will thrive or not, what their competition will be, and really reforming the whole health sector,'  Rodwin said. That's in my view a very dangerous role.'

Note that this is not the first whiff of scandal regarding Rick Scott's leadership role in health care.  As the article noted, Scott:
resigned as CEO of Columbia/HCA amid a federal billing fraud investigation. Columbia/HCA ultimately agreed to the nation's largest Medicare fraud settlement, a $1.7 billion criminal and civil penalty.

Although the company had admitted to criminal wrongdoing, Scott himself was never charged, and he has denied knowledge of the illegal activities.

Scott left Columbia/HCA with more than $5 million in severance and $300 million worth of stock and options.
See our most recent detailed post on Mr Scott's history here.

Massachusetts: House Health Finance Committee Chair Walsh and Health Care Industry Lobbyists

The newly appointed chair of the Massachusetts House committee on health care finance has strong relationships to health care industry lobbyists, according to an editorial in the Boston Globe:
Speaker Robert DeLeo has chosen a health-finance committee chairman, Steven M. Walsh of Lynn, whose family is to lobbying what the Mannings are to NFL quarterbacking. Walsh’s father-in-law represents the state’s health insurers, while his uncle’s firm blocks and tackles for Steward Health Care, new owners of the Caritas chain of Catholic hospitals.

Again, there are a number of issues before the Massachusetts legislature about which there appears to be a risk that Representative Walsh's actions could be unduly influenced by his family's lobbying work:
Next to the budget, the thorniest issue the Legislature will deal with this year will be changes in health care financing. Lawmakers will consider bills that may completely change how health care providers are paid. That shift — from fee-for-service payments towards a system based more on per-capita reimbursements — will set off a free-for-all among insurers, doctors, and hospitals.

Walsh’s admirable efforts ... [to improve legistlation regarding lobbying] don’t erase the conflict of interest he faces on health care issues. Walsh can try to separate family feelings and events from his official role, but the companies paying his uncle’s firm and his father-in-law are still expecting them to use every opportunity to make the strongest possible case for their clients. And it’s no exaggeration that these clients — the state’s insurers and its newest hospital chain — have hundreds of millions of dollars at risk in the new payment system Walsh will be vetting.

Perhaps if the stakes were lower or the relationships more distant, Walsh could chair the health-finance committee without risking public confidence. But as it is, he will be in a position of representing the taxpayers’ interests against those of his close relatives.
Note that we discussed Steward Health's possibly revolutionary role in commercializing physicians' practices here, and how a former Massachusetts government health care agency official exited via the revolving door to join Steward Health Care here.
New York: Governor Cuomo's Advisor and Major Hospital Systems

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has a close advisor whom he just appointed to a "Medicaid redesign team" whose clients include large academic medical centers/ hospital systems, per the New York Times:
When Andrew M. Cuomo married Kerry Kennedy in 1990, Jeffrey A. Sachs served as an usher. When Mr. Cuomo’s daughter Michaela was born, he asked Mr. Sachs to be her godfather. When his marriage fell apart years later, Mr. Cuomo stayed in Mr. Sachs’s triplex near the United Nations.

Since Mr. Cuomo’s election as governor last fall, Mr. Sachs, 58, has taken on a powerful role among his health care advisers as the administration confronts crucial decisions, including how to overhaul New York’s $53 billion Medicaid program.

But at the same time, Mr. Sachs, known to many in Albany as 'Andrew’s best friend,' is working as a paid consultant to some of the biggest players in the New York health care industry, including Mount Sinai Medical Center, NYU Langone Medical Center and the state’s largest association of nursing homes, all of which have financial interests at stake in the coming Medicaid changes.

Mr. Sachs, whose firm is named Sachs Consulting, has never registered as a lobbyist, which would require him to divulge his clients and fees to the state ethics commission.

Again, there are a number of issues before New York government about which there appears to be a risk that Governor Cuomo's actions could be unduly influenced by his friend, advisor, and committee member's consulting relationships with major hospital systems.
Mr. Sachs was also an early advocate of the “Wisconsin model” of Medicaid, under which the governor would set a target for spending reductions and then appoint a task force of industry stakeholders to apportion the cuts. The approach has political appeal for the governor, in that it entices would-be opponents of spending reductions to participate in the plan rather than protest it. But it also endows the unelected team members with immense power.

Mr. Sachs made recommendations to Mr. Cuomo and his aides about whom to appoint to the Medicaid team, which Mr. Cuomo formed through an executive order in January. During the transition, Mr. Sachs also helped assemble a four-person policy team to begin meeting with state agencies about the best approach to reducing Medicaid spending

Moreover, the Times article recounted cases in which Mr Sachs appeared to influence policy in ways that benefited his consulting clients. For example:
While he was helping Mr. Cuomo assemble his health care staff, Mr. Sachs’s name arose in an unusual personnel matter, one that held great interest for one of his clients, NYU Langone Medical Center.

For at least a year, NYU Langone had had strained relations with Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, a well-known psychiatrist who founded the hospital’s child psychiatry center but left in 2009 to start a competing research and clinical center.

Relations worsened because Dr. Koplewicz, who also served as director of the Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research, a state-run psychiatric center in Rockland County that also has a research affiliation with NYU, refused to allow NYU to screen those he hired at the institute, among other issues.

During an October meeting between Mr. Sachs and Dr. Koplewicz, Mr. Sachs suggested the doctor resign from the Kline Institute, people briefed on the meeting said. Should he lobby too aggressively to keep his job, Mr. Sachs warned, Mr. Cuomo, then widely expected to win election, might choose to close down the institute.

In a later meeting in December, Michael F. Hogan, state commissioner of mental health, told Dr. Koplewicz that he had been warned by Mr. Sachs that his reappointment by Mr. Cuomo would be jeopardized if Dr. Koplewicz did not resign, according to the people briefed.

Afterward, Dr. Koplewicz wrote Dr. Hogan a letter detailing his accomplishments as director of the institute and complaining of the pressure being exerted by Mr. Sachs.

'As you explained — and I appreciate your candor — you have been pressured by NYU through Jeff Sachs to have me resign as a condition for your reappointment as commissioner of mental health,' Dr. Koplewicz wrote in the letter.

In a response sent the following day, Dr. Hogan did not dispute Dr. Koplewicz’s account but suggested that he had been insufficiently cooperative with NYU and the Office of Mental Health.

'Accordingly, your service as director, Psychiatric Research Institute, will end effective Jan. 13, 2011,' Dr. Hogan wrote.

Dr. Koplewicz and Dr. Hogan both declined to comment, though neither disputed the authenticity of the letters.

This case is particularly disquieting because of Governor Cuomo's former role as a tough state attorney general who targeted white collar crime.


US health care is hugely complex. The interests of its increasingly large commercial players can be strongly affected by the actions of government at local, state and national levels.

We have previously discussed the pervasiveness of conflicts of interest throughout health care. It should come as no surprise that there are important conflicts affecting government leaders who have power over health care issues.

Although there may actually be more laws and regulations about conflicts of interest affecting government leaders than about those affecting, say, leaders of academic medical institutions, the increasingly incestuous nature of health care leadership seems to add impetus to entwine the system in ever increasing strands of conflict.

So, I humbly suggest, as a variation on a theme I have sounded before, that governmental leaders who have power over health care should put the health of patients and the population first, and should not have relationships that risk this mission in service of private gain.  Furthermore, leaders of civilian health care organizations, especially of hospitals, hospital systems and physicians' groups whose mission is also to improve care of individuals and society, should not seek to entangle government leaders in conflicts meant to serve private financial interests. 

No comments: