Friday, January 18, 2013

"Slap on the Wrist" for a "Too Big to Fail" Hospital - Judge Rejects WakeMed Settlement

Maybe we are reaching an inflection point in how misbehavior by big health care organizations is handled in the US legal system. 

We have frequently discussed the march of legal settlements made by big health care organizations.  Many of these settlements indicated severely bad behavior, often behavior that seemed overtly dishonest, sometimes criminal, and had the potential to harm patients.  Yet most of these settlements involved only fines, and sometimes written agreements that pledge the organization will do better in the future, often in the form of deferred prosecution or corporate integrity agreements.  Yet the fines were often small compared to the amount the organization stood to make from the bad behavior.  It is not clear that any written agreements were enforced, or caused major penalties if the organization did not fulfill them.  And almost never did any individual within the accused organization suffer any negative consequences for authorizing, directing or implementing the bad behavior, even if such individuals may have personally profited from high compensation partially fueled by the bad behavior.

Now and then, though, there are cases that are different.  Perhaps one has just come along that may signal things are going to change.

The Basics of the Case

The case was first reported by the Raleigh (NC)  News & Observer in December, 2012.  Here are the basics:

WakeMed has agreed to pay $8 million to settle an investigation into its practice of billing Medicare for expensive overnight care when the patients had been treated and discharged the same day.

The settlement came after a lengthy criminal investigation into Medicare billing procedures used by nurses at the private, not-for-profit hospital’s Heart Center Observation Area.

Nurses there, according to federal court documents, routinely ignored physicians’ orders for how a patient should be classified. Their actions resulted in the hospital receiving millions of unwarranted Medicare dollars for outpatients who were classified wrongly as inpatients.

Though some WakeMed managers were aware of the billing practices, according to court documents, investigators found no evidence of anyone personally benefiting from the system.

No one, according to WakeMed officials, lost their job or was disciplined because of the investigation. 
The US Attorney made the usual sort of announcement:

'This case will serve as a reminder that hospitals, just like individual health care providers, will be held accountable for their actions,' [Thomas] Walker, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of North Carolina, said in a statement.

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So far, this is pretty usual.  There were accusations of inflated billing, a monetary fine that might look big to the average citizen, but that pales next to the revenue of the offending organization (over $943 million in the 2010-2011 fiscal year according to the WakeMed 2011 US form 990),a stern statement by the US Attorney, but again no penalties for any individual, and here, a rather implausible statement that no one benefited from the deceptive practices.

However, there were also some immediately appreciable atypical elements to this case.

Atypical Elements

In addition to the fine to be paid, the case was to be settled using a deferred prosecution agreement:

The hospital faces two criminal charges – making material false statements relating to health care matters and aiding and abetting, but under the settlement reached Wednesday, prosecution will be deferred. If the hospital complies with provisions in the settlement agreement, such as paying $8 million and allowing further monitoring, the charges will be dismissed in two years, according to court documents.

As part of the agreement, which has yet to be approved in court, [Wakemed CEO Bill] Atkinson acknowledged the wrongdoing described by prosecutors. He further acknowledged that WakeMed was responsible for the acts of the health-care organization’s employees and officers.

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While we have sometimes seen deferred prosecution agreements used in cases in which for-profit health care corporations were accused of violating the law, they are rarely used in cases involving non-profit hospitals.  (The biggest one I recall was that of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, a complex case we started discussing in 2005.  See relevant posts here.)  Criminal charges against a non-profit hospital are also unusual.  Note also that as stated above the hospital system CEO seemed to admit that the hospital did wrong, raising further doubt about the conclusion above that no individual personally profited.

The plot further thickened when the CEO seemed to contradict his own statement within the deferred prosecution agreement that acknowledged wrong-doing.

In an interview Wednesday, Bill Atkinson, WakeMed’s president and CEO, wavered between accepting the charges – saying repeatedly  'I don’t want to minimize it, and I don’t want you to hear me doing that' – and being adamant that the hospital’s actions were simply a misinterpretation of complicated federal Medicare guidelines.

Even though he endorsed a settlement agreement in which prosecutors contend two crimes occurred, Atkinson said he doesn’t believe the hospital’s actions were criminal.

'I don’t think so, but the federal government thinks they could certainly turn it that way,' he said. That description differs vastly from what prosecutors contend. 'They’re not going to minimize the media effect,' Atkinson said.

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The plot thickened further when in the same interview Atkinson seemed to deny that any individual did anything wrong:

Heidi McAfee, who retired earlier this year, was director of Patient Access during much of the period when the problematic billing occurred. Efforts to reach McAfee on Wednesday were unsuccessful, but Atkinson praised her years of work with WakeMed.

'Do I think anybody intentionally did anything wrong?' Atkinson said. 'No, I don’t.'

He said WakeMed had not reported McAfee or any of the nurses to the N.C. Board of Nursing for ignoring doctor’s orders. 

So did the hospital acknowledge wrongdoing, or did it not?  If wrongdoing did occur, did any individual do it, or was it done by ghosts or spirits?  From this account, it was unclear.

This Time the Inconsistencies and Ambiguities are not Ignored

Many of the settlements we have discussed seem to have been based on similar illogic.  For example, they often involved accusations of bad behavior, often bad enough to put patients at danger, yet the settlements may included ritualistic statements by defendant organizations that they neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing.  Thus, the settlements left ambiguous and unknown what really happened, and their own appropriateness.  (Note that similar settlements are made all the time by big financial firms, and one intrepid judge did point out how little sense they make, see this post.)

Yet in most cases, the illogic is rapidly swept under the rug, noticed, if at all, by lowly outsiders like your humble bloggers on Health Care Renewal.

This time, though, it was different.

Why Would the Nurses Ignore Doctors' Orders?

An important part of the argument by the US Department of Justice in this case was that nurses "routinely ignored doctors' orders."  If it were true, this would be very unusual and would threaten the integrity of health care at the particular institution, since every hospital operates on the assumption that the doctors make management decisions and order tests, treatments, etc, and then the nurses, as well as technicians and therapists carry out these orders.

However, In this case, a local nurse immediately and publicly disputed the notion that the nurses were independently flouting the doctors' orders.  As reported again by the News & Observer in December, 2012,

When Vicki Hewitt-McNeil read about WakeMed’s $8 million settlement for wrong Medicare billing, the Raleigh nurse didn’t buy the story.

According to the settlement, a nursing director instructed her staff to admit patients as inpatients and ignore doctors’ orders to treat them on the less expensive outpatient basis.

With two decades of nursing experience, Hewitt-McNeil didn’t like that the blame was shifted down the totem pole to nurses, who don’t wield the power of administrators and doctors.

'I honestly cannot believe this was the nursing department that did this,' Hewitt-McNeil said. 'That’s just not possible.'

[Ms Hewitt-McNeil]  also worked shifts at WakeMed as a pool nurse, similar to working as a substitute teacher. 'Nurses at WakeMed don’t have the autonomy to do anything,' Hewitt-McNeil said. 'You have to call a doctor for everything.'

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Again, the contention that the nurses systematically disobeyed doctors or pretended to be following non-existent orders implied a fundamental break-down of the system and widespread unprofessional, unethical behavior by the nurses.  In addition, the charges did not suggest why the nurses would do something so bad, especially since they were in no position to personally benefit from their actions.

 What Did the Hospital Leadership Actually Admit?

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It took a few weeks, but someone - it is not clear who it was - noticed that while the Department of Justice asserted that the hospital CEO had admitted wrongdoing, the CEO's public statement seemed to equivocate.  So in mid January, 2013, as reported again by the News & Observer,

Deb Laughery, a spokeswoman for the hospital, issued a clarification on Monday.

'In an abundance of caution, WakeMed confirms that it has agreed to a settlement with the United States as set forth in the Deferred Prosecution Agreement,' the statement said, adding further that statements of fact laid out in the agreement were 'true and accurate.'

In the clarification, WakeMed officials acknowledged that the hospital formally faced federal criminal charges. The hospital also retracted any suggestions that the settlement only involved a small number of cases.

The hospital public relations person apparently could not bring herself to say that the hospital admitted wrongdoing, but by acknowledging that statements of fact in the deferred prosecution agreement were "true and accurate," she seemed to be indirectly admitting again that wrongdoing occurred, and that the hospital was responsible for the actions of its employees.

The Judge Notices the Emperor Has No Clothes

Despite their internal inconsistencies and illogic, most legal settlements of accusations of wrongdoing by big health care organizations are accepted by judges.  In this case, again things were different.  As reported yesterday, on 17 January, 2013 again by the News & Observer,

 WakeMed officials and federal prosecutors spent two years hammering out an $8 million proposal to settle a Medicare fraud investigation.

A federal judge shredded the 116-page agreement in less than 30 minutes on Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle ticked off a list of his grievances about the proposal, forcing federal prosecutors into the unusual position of defending the defendants.

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Quelle surprise!  The judge took particular offense that the settlement seemed disproportionately lenient,

 The agreement, Boyle said, appeared to be a 'slap on the hand' for a 'too big to fail' corporate giant. Only the day before, Boyle told the lawyers, he sentenced a woman to a year in prison in a $235,000 insurance fraud case.


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Boyle was irked that no criminal charges had been filed in the case. He ended the hearing by telling the prosecutor either to fold his briefcase or take it to a federal grand jury for official indictments.

'There are lots of corporations that steal from the government,' Boyle said. 'Most of them are convicted, fined and banished.'


'Why are you coming to court if you tell me you don’t need me?' Boyle asked Gilmore, the prosecutor who rose before him Thursday. 'I’m just window dressing in this case.'

'Why not take a guilty plea, defer imposition of the judgment and sentence, and come back in two years later and take a post hoc dismissal?' Boyle asked later.

Boyle lamented the increased number of health care fraud cases across the country.

'Who are the victims in this case?' Boyle asked before answering his own question. 'Every American wage earner and every American citizen.'

Boyle continued: 'It’s very difficult for society and the court to differentiate between the everyday working Joe or Jane who goes to prison and the nonprofit corporate giant who doesn’t go to jail, who gets a slap on the hand and doesn’t miss a beat.'

Exactly.   And finally, just to demonstrate the sense of impunity of the leadership of this particular nonprofit corporate giant

Boyle, who’s been a federal judge for 28 years, also criticized WakeMed for failing to send a top administrator or a board member to answer his questions. It’s rare for a criminal case to be resolved without a defendant at the defense table.

Deb Laughery, a WakeMed spokeswoman, said after the hearing that none attended because the board approved a resolution earlier in the week supporting the proposed settlement.


For years now the leadership of large health care organizations have grown rich while denying accountability for their actions that made this so.  This denial has been largely abetted by governmental regulators and law enforcers, who while often recognizing that corporate misbehavior has occurred, have seemed unable or unwilling to pursue anything but the most lenient resolutions of such cases.  These resolutions are often fines that might appear big to gullible members of the public, but are actually small in comparison to the money to be made; sometimes deferred prosecution and corporate integrity agreements that rarely are enforced; and almost never any negative consequences for the people who authorized, directed, or implemented the bad behavior.  Thus the leaders of health care organizations have enjoyed impunity, have become the new untouchables, and thus health care organizations become ever better at raking in money and ever worse at providing good health care.

As I have said again and again,  until the people responsible for the bad behavior experience negative consequences from that behavior, they will continue to perform, direct, and condone bad behavior. We will not achieve real health care reform in the US until we effectively deter unethical, self-serving behavior by leaders of health care organizations.

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Trevor3130 said...

'I honestly cannot believe ...'That’s just not possible.'
Weasel words. We hear them every day.
I just hope that, if I have to give testimony before a judge, those words do not fall from my lips. Even if I've been coached & gilded by a PR flack, I reckon the judge may hear something different.
Keep it up, we don't get this depth of reporting elsewhere.

Cetamua said...

Anyone watched The Untouchables on Frontline this week? If so, you'll forgive my aggressive tone here.

'I honestly cannot believe...'

Well...guess what CEO-dude! We don't care what you believe. I hope the judge FORCES you to appear in front of him, to answer some particularly painful questions that you won't be able to weasel your way out of a complete answer.

I'll freaking PAY to witness that and blog it live!

Afraid said...

Poor judge will lose his seat and pension.