Doctors at hospital chain giant performed unnecessary cardiac work, increasing profits
Investigation into internal records reveals hospitals prioritized their bottom line
By REED ABELSON and JULIE CRESWELL from The New York Times
In the summer of 2010, a troubling letter reached the chief ethics officer of the hospital giant HCA, written by a former nurse at one of the company’s hospitals in Florida.
In a follow-up interview, the nurse said a doctor at the Lawnwood Regional Medical Center, in the small coastal city of Fort Pierce, had been performing heart procedures on patients who did not need them, putting their lives at risk.
“It bothered me,” the nurse, C. T. Tomlinson, said in a telephone interview. “I’m a registered nurse. I care about my patients.”
In less than two months, an internal investigation by HCA concluded the nurse was right.
“The allegations related to unnecessary procedures being performed in the cath lab are substantiated,” according to a confidential memo written by a company ethics officer, Stephen Johnson, and reviewed by The New York Times.
Mr. Tomlinson’s contract was not renewed; a move that Mr. Johnson said in the memo was in retaliation for his complaints.
But the nurse’s complaint was far from the only evidence that unnecessary — even dangerous — procedures were taking place at some HCA hospitals, driving up costs and increasing profits.
HCA, the largest for-profit hospital chain in the United States with 163 facilities, had uncovered evidence as far back as 2002 and as recently as late 2010 showing that some cardiologists at several of its hospitals in Florida were unable to justify many of the procedures they were performing. Those hospitals included the Cedars Medical Center in Miami, which the company no longer owns, and the Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point. In some cases, the doctors made misleading statements in medical records that made it appear the procedures were necessary, according to internal reports.
Questions about the necessity of medical procedures — especially in the realm of cardiology — are not uncommon. None of the internal documents reviewed calculate just how many such procedures there were or how many patients might have died or been injured as a result. But the documents suggest that the problems at HCA went beyond a rogue doctor or two.
At Lawnwood, where an invasive diagnostic test known as a cardiac catheterization is performed, about half the procedures, or 1,200, were determined to have been done on patients without significant heart disease, according to a confidential 2010 review. HCA countered recently with a different analysis, saying the percentage of patients without disease was much lower and in keeping with national averages.
At Bayonet Point, a 44-year-old man who arrived at the emergency room complaining of chest pain suffered a punctured blood vessel and a near-fatal irregular heartbeat after a doctor performed a procedure that an outside expert later suggested might have been unnecessary, documents show. The man had to be revived. “They shocked him twice and got him back,” according to the testimony of Dr. Aaron Kugelmass in a medical hearing on the case.
In another incident, an outside expert described how a woman with no significant heart disease went into cardiac arrest after a vessel was cut when a Bayonet Point cardiologist inserted a stent, a meshlike device that opens coronary arteries. She remained hospitalized for several days, according to a person who has reviewed internal reports.
On Monday morning, in a conference call with investors, company executives disclosed that in July the civil division of the United States attorney’s office in Miami requested information on reviews assessing the medical necessity of interventional cardiology services provided at 10 of its hospitals, located largely in Florida, but also two or three hospitals in other states. In the conference call and in a statement on its Web site, the company also referred to inquiries by The Times. HCA’s stock ended nearly 4 percent lower Monday, at $25.55.
In a recent statement, HCA declined to provide evidence that it had alerted Medicare, state Medicaid or private insurers of its findings, or reimbursed them for any of the procedures that the company later deemed unnecessary, as required by law.
“When the company becomes aware of a situation in which we might have a reimbursement obligation, we assess, with outside resources, what our reimbursement obligations might be,” the statement said.
HCA also declined to show that it had ever notified patients, who might have been entitled to compensation from the hospital for any harm.
Some doctors accused in the reviews of performing unnecessary procedures are still practicing at HCA hospitals.
The cardiologists say the reviews of their work did not accurately reflect the care they provided, and HCA says the reviews “are not, by any means, definitive,” according to an e-mailed response by the company. HCA says it took whatever steps were necessary to improve patient care. It also said “significant actions were taken to investigate areas of concern, to bring in independent reviewers, and to take action where necessary.”