Wednesday, January 28, 2015

None Dare Call It Health Care Corruption

... even when allegedly a prominent academic physician's traded referrals of cancer patients to a law firm, resulting in referral fees to a prominent politician who worked for the firm, for government research grants to the physician's foundation and another foundation on whose board he sat, and a job for his son at yet another non-profit organization.

Health care corruption, remains a largely taboo topic, especially when it occurs in developed countries like the US.  Searching PubMed or major medical and health care journals at best will reveal a few articles on health care corruption, nearly all about corruption in less developed countries far away from where the authors live.  When the media may publish stories about issues related to health care corruption, they are almost never labelled as such.

For example, last year we discussed two widely reported cases of alleged political corruption.  One included allegations that a company producing a supposedly anti-inflammatory dietary supplement bribed Robert McDonnell, the former Governor of Virginia.  Mr McDonnell was later convicted and sentenced to two years in jail for public corruption (look here).  Another included allegations that Rick Perry, the former Governor of Texas abused his power by cutting funding of the state anti-corruption unit, which was investigating whether the Texas Cancer Research and Prevention Institute was awarding grants based on political influence rather than clinical and methodological merit. The reporting of both cases underplayed the health care aspects, and never mentioned health care corruption, or words to that effect.

Yet Transparency International's report on global health care corruption suggested health care corruption occurs in all countries.  A recent TI survey showed that 43% of US citizens believe the country has a health care corruption problem (look here).  Perhaps some US citizens have been reading between the lines, or have personal experiences with health care corruption. However, as long as we cannot talk about this problem openly, there is no chance it will be solved.

In January, 2015, a case of apparent political corruption made headlines.  It turns out to also be a case of apparent health care corruption.  

New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver Charged with Fraud, Extortion, and Receiving Bribes

In late January, 2015, from early reporting  by the Capital New York,

The federal corruption case against Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver rests in part on his alleged scheme with a doctor who referred asbestos cases to the Weitz & Luxenberg law firm where Silver is of counsel.

A criminal complaint from U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara alleges that Silver obtained referrals of asbestos
cases from a doctor affiliated with a university in Manhattan, referred to as 'Doctor-1,' by using his position as speaker to quietly direct $500,000 in state funds to the doctor's research and give 'additional benefits' to the doctor and the doctor's family.

The Doctor-1 described in the criminal complaint appears to be Dr. Robert Taub of Columbia University, based on details outlined in the criminal complaint, and confirmed by a secretary at his office and separately by a knowledgeable source. Taub specializes in mesothelioma research, for which it is hard to find research funding.

Regarding the advantages gained by Mr Silver,

Silver allegedly received millions of dollars in referral fees from Weitz & Luxenberg, and was credited with referring more than 100 clients, many of whom were referred for asbestos cases, according to the complaint.

The firm paid Silver $3.2 million for referrals related to asbestos cases between 2003 and 2014, according to the complaint. Prosecutors claim that several of those asbestos clients said they had been referred to Doctor-1 for treatment, and said the doctor had also recommended they retain Weitz & Luxenberg as their counsel.

Regarding the benefits to Dr Taub,

The complaints say the scheme began when the doctor allegedly asked Silver if his firm would help fund mesothelioma research and Silver declined. But prosecutors claim the doctor became aware that Silver wanted him to refer asbestos patients to Silver and the law firm for counsel, in exchange for funding for his medical research.

Doctor-1 started referring patients to Silver, and Silver began directing state funding to the doctor's research, the complaint alleges.

In December 2003, Doctor-1 requested a $250,000 grant from Silver to establish a Mesothelioma center at a university, according to the complaint. The complaint also says that the request was granted, and Silver approved payment from a pool of discretionary funds paid for by health care-related assessments that was under Silver's sole control until the year 2007.

Silver later directed another grant from the same pool of funds, also worth $250,000, to the Mesothelioma Center.

In 2008, the speaker directed a further $25,000 discretionary member item grant to a not-for-profit where the doctor was a board member, according to the complaint.

In 2012, the complaint alleges that Doctor-1 asked Silver for help in finding a family member a job with a nonprofit organization that 'received millions of dollars in member items and capital funding from Silver.'

A New York Times article verified that "Doctor-1" was Dr Robert N Taub, a previously highly reputed academic.  

In the criminal complaint against Sheldon Silver, he is identified simply as “Doctor-1.”

But Dr. Robert N. Taub, who headed a Columbia University center dedicated to curing a rare form of cancer caused by asbestos, is no ordinary doctor.


In 2002, Dr. Taub created one of the nation’s few mesothelioma research hubs, the Columbia University Mesothelioma Center. He was also active in an organization that raised money for research, sitting on the scientific advisory board of one of the few nonprofits created to help victims, the Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation. The foundation, which awards research grants, relies heavily on gifts from law firms.

Finally, the NY Times story identified Dr Taub's family member who got a job through Mr Silver's intervention,

 According to the complaint and people briefed on the investigation, Dr. Taub also asked Mr. Silver in 2012 to help his son, Jonathan, find a job. The speaker arranged for an interview at OHEL Children’s Home and Family Services, a social services organization based in Brooklyn that had received millions of dollars in state funds from Mr. Silver.
After the allegations were made public, the NY Times also reported that Dr Taub "is leaving his position as head of a Columbia University cancer center, and the center is being disbanded," and the New York Post reported that Mr Silver is stepping down from his position as Speaker of the NY Assembly.

Political Corruption Highlighted, Health Care Corruption Ignored 

Corruption as defined by Transparency International is abuse of entrusted power for private gain.  Thus TI does not limit the term to cases involving politicians or government. Clearly, the allegations above were for corruption in this sense, and that corruption involved health care.

Furthermore, the alleged facts in the case implied,
-  Dr Taub abused his patients' trust in him by directing them to Mr Silver's firm, whether or not that was the best choice for these patients
-  Dr Taub abused the trust he inspired as a medical researcher by trading referral of his patients for government research grants
-  Dr Taub personally profited from these arrangements by obtaining a job for his family member, and a grant for another (non medical research) foundation on whose board he sat.
-  By directing grants to Dr Taub's research foundation, and the foundation on whose board Dr Taub sat, Mr Silver allocated scarce research funding for private gain, rather than for clinical, public health, or scientific reasons.

However, the coverage of the charges against Mr Silver, and particularly those relating to Dr Taub, was solely in terms of political corruption.  While the media reported the facts related to health care, there was no mention of health care corruption.

Even the pithy op-ed on the case by Prof Zephyr Teachout, now widely known for her expertise in corruption, and for increasing awareness of the importance of corruption in modern US society, did not mention health care corruption.  Her op-ed did note the earlier case of former Virginia Governor McDonnell,

As with the recent conviction of the former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell for receiving improper gifts and loans, a fixation on plain graft misses the more pernicious poison that has entered our system.

However, Professor Teachout did not note that these gifts and loans resulted from Governor McDonnell using his influence to market a supposed anti-inflammatory nutritional supplement.


Professor Teachout has decried how the definition of corruption has narrowed.

A fixation on plain graft misses the more pernicious poison that has entered our system.

However, our system is poisoned not only by political, but by health care corruption.  

However, when health care corruption is clearly the issue, the news media will not use that term.  Only when the corruption is occurring far away, usually in a supposedly benighted less developed country, will the news media or the scholarly medical, health care, and health policy literature discuss it as such.  So the anechoic nature of health care corruption has not changed since my post of August, 2014.

If we are not willing to even talk about health care corruption, how will we ever challenge it? 

So to repeat an ending to one of my previous posts on health care corruption....  if we really want to reform health care, in the little time we may have before our health care bubble bursts, we will need to take strong action against health care corruption.  Such action will really disturb the insiders within large health care organizations who have gotten rich from their organizations' misbehavior, and thus taking such action will require some courage.  Yet such action cannot begin until we acknowledge and freely discuss the problem.  The first step against health care corruption is to be able to say or write the words, health care corruption.

ADDENDUM (29 January, 2015) - This post was reposted on Naked Capitalism.  


Steve Lucas said...

Then we have this gem:

It is always easiest to take advantage of those who are least able to defend themselves.

Steve Lucas

Judy B said...

Indeed! I am afraid that I have become rather cynical about this subject. I think that those getting rich (and in power) do not care if the medical care bubble bursts because they already got theirs...