Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare topped the list of Top 10 “bad actors” in healthcare in the third annual Martin Shkreli Awards announced today. The awards are named for the infamous “pharma bro” who jacked up prices on a life-saving drug and ended up in prison.
Methodist, Memphis’ largest hospital system, together with UVA Medical Center, Mary Washington Hospital, Carlsbad Medical Center, Poplar Bluff Regional Medical Center and Ballad Health, earned a Shkreli for their “exceptional prowess at profiteering and corruption,” said the Lown Institute, a Boston-based healthcare think tank that presents the awards.
“Hospitals can’t stop following the money, even when it puts childrens’ lives at risk or ruins the financial health of families in their community,” said Dr. Vikas Saini, Lown Institute president.
The Shkreli judges’ panel, made up of healthcare clinicians, activists and journalists, dinged these hospitals because most are mission-driven nonprofits, “making their unethical behavior even more shocking.” These hospitals claim to care about community health, but sue patients and garnish wages, institute officials said.
Methodist’s aggressive debt collection machine was the subject of an MLK50: Justice Through Journalism-ProPublica investigation that revealed the faith-based hospital sued more than 8,300 people over a five-year period. The hospital system even sued its own workers and garnished their wages.
Weeks after the first stories in the Profiting From the Poor series were published, hospital officials pronounced themselves “humbled.” They announced the hospital, which is affiliated with the United Methodist Church, would dial back aggressive collections practices, stop suing employees, raise the threshold for charity care, and stop suing anyone, regardless of insurance status, whose household income was less than 250% of the federal poverty guideline, or $53,325 for a family of three.
Following the investigation, Methodist erased $11.9 million in unpaid hospital debt owed by more than 5,300 defendants. Methodist has said it has reduced or eliminated debts in 7,500 cases.
“These organizations brand themselves as doing good but too often they are really just doing well. Shame on our Shkreli winners,” said Shannon Brownlee, senior vice president at the Lown Institute.
The language is a bit harsh for local commentator TaJuan Stout-Mitchell, a former Memphis city councilwoman, who, nevertheless, lauds the journalistic effort that brought these practices to light.
“I am not quite sure I want to say that Methodist Hospital was an intended bad actor,” Stout-Michell said. MLK50 editor Wendi C. Thomas’ “research and facts, laid things out so clearly that it pricked the conscience to take a look at some of their policies and make some changes, which I’m glad they did.
“Good investigative reporting is almost a lost art,” Stout-Mitchell said. “It was important work.”
“It’s good when you can look at facts, realize you need to revise, review and re-address some things that you got wrong,” she said.
The Lown Institute’s top 10 bad actors list includes:
2. Companies that spend millions to defeat “surprise billing” legislation, as medical debt skyrockets. Citing reports about the Knoxville-based TeamHealth and Envision, two physician staffing companies backed by private equity firms, the Shkreli Awards took umbrage at the more than $28 million spent on advertisements opposing surprise bill legislation. The companies created a political action organization called “Doctor Patient Unity” to secretly fund these ads.
“TeamHealth and Envision routinely operate outside of hospitals’ insurance networks, and profit heavily from billing patients for out-of-network rates,” according to the institute.
(TeamHealth subsidiary, Southeastern Emergency Physicians, which staffs the emergency rooms at Baptist Memorial Health Care hospitals in the Memphis area, was also a subject in the Profiting from the Poor series. Southeastern had filed more than 4,800 lawsuits since 2017. The pace of those suits had grown considerably after TeamHealth was acquired by the private equity giant, the Blackstone group. Prompted by Thomas’s questions and before the story was published, TeamHealth announced it would stop suing patients over unpaid ER doctors’ bills.)
3. An employer used a technicality to force a $900,000 medical bill on a new mother. Lauren Bard called her health plan administrator three days after she gave birth to her daughter prematurely to ensure the baby was covered. After a month in a neonatal intensive care unit “near death,” Dignity Health, Bard’s employer, said her daughter’s medical care would not be covered because Bard did not enroll her newborn on the company website on time. Dignity Health is a religious organization with the motto, “Hello humankindness” but refused to consider the traumatic circumstances of this childbirth, leaving Bard with a $898,984 bill.
4. Equity firm nursing home takeover leads to surge in patient neglect and abuse. The judges said under the ownership of the Carlyle Group, one of the richest private-equity firms in the world, the ManorCare nursing-home chain exposed its roughly 25,000 patients to increasing health risks, including not treating bed sores; medication errors; not providing proper care for people who need injections, colostomies and prostheses; and not assisting patients with eating and personal hygiene. When asked, “Would you treat your mother this way?” the facility director had no answer.
5. A pharma executive blamed addicts for their opioid addiction. New court documents showed Dr. Richard Sackler, of the Sackler family that owns Purdue Pharma, “encouraged atrocious marketing techniques” of Oxycontin, including diverting blame for opioid abuse onto addiction victims.
“We have to hammer on the abusers in every way possible,” Sackler wrote in an email, Stat reported. “They are the culprits and the problem. They are reckless criminals.”
The full list of winners is available on the Lown Institute website.
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