|Ocala, FL -
December 7, 2012|
Published: Ocala.com Friday, December 7, 2012 at 5:53 p.m.
Trustees for Munroe Regional Medical Center admitted they are concerned about a recent "60 Minutes" segment that raised questions about the admission practices of one of the companies vying to take control of Munroe.
The segment, which aired on CBS last Sunday, questioned whether Health Management Associates, the nation's fourth largest private hospital chain, unnecessarily admitted emergency room patients to boost profits.
Some Hospital District trustees say the allegations by some of HMA's former employees that they were pressured to admit patients unnecessarily were too daunting to ignore. The U.S. Justice Department is currently investigating the company and HMA says that, although it denies the CBS news magazine's allegations, it's cooperating with the government's inquiries.
"It's going to be tough for HMA to overcome the bad publicity...but I'll still have an open mind to both of (the health care companies)," said trustee Larry Strack.
On Monday, Munroe's Strategic Options Workgroup is meeting to continue reviewing offers from companies that are competing for the right to run Munroe. The hospital, a public facility owned by the people of Marion County, has been sliding toward red ink for years, so the trustees who oversee the hospital on behalf of the public are entertaining offers to turn over management to a private company.
HMA is one of those companies. Duke LifePoint Healthcare is the other.
But Strack said that given Sunday's "60 Minutes" program, HMA will be a focal point of the group's discussions.
"I have to take it into consideration," Strack said. "We're looking for what's best for the citizens of Marion County."
HMA's executive vice president for development, Peter Lawson, said that his company did nothing wrong and is offering its side of the story on its website HMA.com.
HMA has a partnership with Shands Hospital in its lease proposal and is offering between $440.2 million and $500.2 million to lease the hospital. Duke LifePoint Healthcare, a joint venture of Duke University Health System and LifePoint Hospitals, is offering $375 million for a 40-year lease.
The CBS program claimed that the pressure for HMA emergency rooms to admit patients was widespread throughout the company.
Strack said the allegations are serious but not surprising, as companies in many industries try to increase profits.
"You're going to have your share of bad actors. Some people get caught, some don't. Every company is pushing," Strack said.
Munroe is owned by the state-sanctioned Marion County Hospital District and the non-profit hospital is overseen by seven trustees who are appointed by the County Commission. The trustees currently lease the hospital to Munroe Regional Health System Inc., which is overseen by a 13-member board, some of whose members also are district trustees.
Hospital District trustee Dr. Mike Jordan described the "60 Minutes" allegations as "concerning, even a little distressing."
"This is the culture for for-profit hospitals," Jordan said.
Jordan said the allegations now call for a "deeper level of scrutiny" by the trustees into HMA.
Some trustees said that despite the television program, HMA/Shands should remain a viable option to lease Munroe. They said that, if nothing else, having two applicants will ensure that the Hospital District gets the best offers from the health care companies.
District trustee Joe Hanratty said he thought the allegations on the program should be taken with a grain of salt considering most of them were made by former employees now suing HMA for wrongful termination.
"I didn't see anything on the show that shocked my conscience," Hanratty said.
He said the program came off as biased and that without seeing documents the program said showed an organized effort to admit more patients, he would hold off reaching any conclusions.
Hanratty said the CBS program suggested that health care should not be profitable and was painting HMA in a bad light because it was making money from health care.
In its defense, HMA on its website said that the CBS program failed to "identify a single patient who had been inappropriately admitted from any of the company's emergency rooms, including by the physicians interviewed."
"Neither 60 Minutes nor the physicians interviewed identified any admission decision in which a physician's medical judgment was overridden by an HMA executive, much less to defraud Medicare," the website said.
The website said that HMA also gave "60 Minutes" data demonstrating that admissions rates from the company's emergency rooms "were in line with national norms" and consistent over a several-year period.
Lawson said he first learned of CBS' work on its story several months ago and immediately contacted Munroe administration and 20 other health care facilities HMA was considering leasing or buying to advise them of the potential nature of the news story.
Lawson said HMA had been transparent with the health care companies he's working with, and the company would make someone available if Marion County Hospital District members had questions.
He also said he hoped trustees — or anyone else with questions about the "60 Minutes" program — would read HMA's response on its website.
HMA owns or leases 70 hospitals, 22 of which are in Florida.
Lawson said although the CBS program will have some effect, hospital trustees will look for the best health care partner to help Munroe reach its goals.
"I predict it (the CBS program) is an element," Lawson said, but overall not a significant element in the (trustee) decision making."