Tuesday, July 29, 2014

New Allegations About Universal Health Services Inc - Why We Should Not be Surprised

Current Allegations of Poor Treatment and Threats to a Whistle Blower

This month, a Boston Globe article reported trouble at a local hospital,

Arbour HRI, a Brookline psychiatric hospital in recent trouble with regulators, disciplined a mental health worker for talking to the Boston Globe about problems there — an action the employees’ union is fighting.

The hospital also required all staff to sign a policy forbidding them from speaking with the media about Arbour — or risk losing their jobs, according to the union.

An article that appeared in the Globe on May 30 described findings of federal investigators that the hospital failed to provide treatment for at least four patients during a February inspection. Instead of attending group therapy, the patients, whose diagnoses included bipolar disorder and paranoid schizophrenia, spent many hours sleeping or wandering the hallways.

One Tuesday afternoon, three patients on a unit for those diagnosed with both mental illness and a substance abuse disorder were in therapy. Inspectors found eight patients in bed.

Frank Barnes, a longtime mental health worker and a union representative for 1199SEIU, was quoted in the story saying that problems at Arbour HRI reflected the culture of an administration more focused on revenue than quality of care.

But then,

 Nine days later, according to documents the SEIU provided to the Globe, a nurse executive verbally warned Barnes. A 'counseling/corrective action form' stated that the consequences for failing to follow the media policy could include termination.

The policy warns employees they 'are not to speak to any member from the media on behalf of the facility or company,' and that they must immediately refer press inquiries to the chief executive.

Arbour spokeswoman Judith Merel said that the policy is intended to protect the privacy of patients and staff. 'These processes are put in place to ensure that the hospital complies with all patient confidentiality and privacy laws as well as to safeguard the trust placed in us by our patients, employees and staff,' she said in a written statement.

But the SEIU, in a complaint against the hospital filed with the National Labor Relations Board, charged unfair retaliation against Barnes and said the 'overly-broad' media policy violates employees’ rights.

'If Universal Health Services is treating the patients under its care with dignity and respect, then why would it prevent caregivers from talking to the media?' union executive vice president Veronica Turner said in a written statement. 'It raises serious questions about what the company is trying to hide.'

So far we have allegations that insufficient or poor care was provided, and that a hospital employee who discussed the allegations with the press was threatened, apparently based on a media policy that was more like a code of silence.

It turns out these are not the first problems reflecting badly on the management of the hospital.

Arbour HRI has a recent history of problems. Massachusetts regulators prohibited the hospital from accepting any patients in November, citing unsafe conditions. They allowed admissions to gradually resume two weeks later, in early December. But then in February, inspectors for the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services found serious shortcomings in the quality of treatment at the 66-bed hospital in Brookline.

The problems at Arbour HRI should not come, however, as a big surprise.  Arbour HRI is part of

Arbour Health System [which] operates five psychiatric hospitals and 12 mental health clinics in Massachusetts. Its for-profit parent, Universal Health Services [Inc], is a publicly traded company that earned more than $500 million last year....

Although not mentioned in the current Boston Globe report, Universal Health Services Inc seems to have a sorry record.

In 2012, Settlement of Allegations of Substandard Treatment, Falsified Records

About two years ago, Universal Health Services settled somewhat similar allegations about another of its hospitals.  As announced by the Department of Justice,

Universal Health Services Inc. (UHS) and two subsidiaries have reached a settlement in a False Claims Act lawsuit with the United States and the Commonwealth of Virginia, the Justice Department announced today.   Under the settlement, UHS and its subsidiaries, Keystone Education and Youth Services LLC and Keystone Marion LLC, which did business as the Keystone Marion Youth Center, a residential facility in Marion, Va., agreed to pay $6.85 million to the United States and the commonwealth to settle allegations that they provided substandard psychiatric counseling and treatment to adolescents in violation of Medicaid requirements, falsified records and submitted false claims to the Medicaid program.  UHS closed the Marion facility earlier this year.  

The allegations, made by multiple people, were actually quite lurid.  As reported by the Huffington Post, the lawsuit involved assertions that psychological therapy was provided in hallways;  the facility lacked a required education program and clinical direct; inmates were nearly unclothed; responses to resident complaints were sometimes met with "brutal force;" the staff performed an "exorcism" on an autistic boy; and staff sexually abused residents.

Previous Allegations of Neglect, Suicide Attempts, Rape and Murder

Note furthermore that according to the Huffington Post

Universal Health Services Inc., a large hospital chain which racked up dozens of allegations of abuse during that time -- including everything from rape to suicide attempts allowed by neglect to murder. Over the years, states have barred children from attending UHS facilities over safety concerns and the feds have put UHS on their radar. Department of Justice lawyers have filed two lawsuits accusing the chain of fraudulent activities. 

By the way, the reason the Huffington Post gave this case extensive coverage, however, was not apparently the grievous nature of the allegations.  It was that on Universal Health Services board sat a politician who was at the time of the report a credible candidate for the Republican nomination to be President of the US.

Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) has become a top-tier candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in recent weeks by appealing to evangelical voters as a man steeped in family values and his Christian faith. From 2007 to 2011, however, Santorum served on the board of directors of Universal Health Services Inc.,...

In 2009, Settlement of Allegations of Kickbacks to Physicians

Finally, also mentioned in the Huffington Post, was another settlement by Universal Health Care.  As reported in Modern Healthcare,

Universal Health Services agreed to pay the federal government $27.5 million to resolve allegations that its three hospitals doing business as South Texas Health System paid kickbacks to physicians in the form of sham medical directorships and leases, the U.S. Justice Department announced.  

Note further that this settlement

also requires South Texas Health System to enter a five-year corporate integrity agreement with HHS' inspector general's office. 


So given the record public since at least2009, should it be a big surprise that Universal Health Services is again facing allegations of poor and unethical treatment of patients and employees?

This is a familiar pattern.  Now that we have been following organizational misbehavior in health care for some years, we see that organizations that get into trouble once are very likely to get into trouble again.

This may be enabled by how government regulators and law enforcement give large health care organizations such  gentle treatment.  We have talked about the march of legal settlements by such organizations before.  Allegations are usually resolved with legal settlements that involve no admissions of guilt, small monetary penalties (compared with these organizations' total revenues), and sometimes apparently toothless corporate integrity agreements.  Settlements get desultory public notice, rarely informed by previous settlements or other evidence of previous misbehavior.  No individual who may have authorized, encouraged, directed, or implemented the bad behavior is likely to suffer any negative consequences.   It does not help that while nominally public, these settlements get little press, and what coverage there is usually fails to put the whole pattern together.

So we would urge the reporters who cover the next settlements by big health care organizations at least look to see if the organizations had been involved in similar settlements in the past.

Furthermore, as we have said all to often,...   The failure of the current limp legal efforts against such corruption is evident by how many corporations have become ethical repeat offenders.  Pervasive bad behavior by large health care organizations has got to be a major cause of our ongoing health care dysfunction.  So, to really deter bad behavior, those who authorized, directed or implemented bad behavior must be held accountable. As long as they are not, expect the bad behavior to continue.

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