Mark Twain's insight about three kinds of lies (lies, damn lies and statistics) seems especially cogent at election time.
Executives at Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. probably agree since they've been dragged into a nasty Senate race in Tennessee involving the brother of Columbia/HCA's chairman, Thomas Frist Jr.
Bill Frist is trying to unseat 18-year Democratic incumbent Sen. Jim Sasser, who is fighting back by hammering at Mr. Frist's wealth and connections to the healthcare industry.
One Sasser TV ad has an announcer saying, "Here's what Bill Frist isn't telling you about taxes. According to the IRS, Bill Frist's family-controlled healthcare company didn't pay its fair share of taxes for 10 years. It now owes $1 billion in back taxes and penalties."
The Internal Revenue Service does contend that Columbia/HCA owes $1 billion in back taxes, but the amount is in dispute. Most analysts agree it's unlikely Columbia/HCA will have to pay that much for a liability of the former Hospital Corporation of America, which was merged into Columbia/HCA.
As for calling Columbia/HCA a "family-controlled business," that's stretching things a bit. While the Frist family, including Thomas Frist, owns about 5% of Columbia/HCA stock, Bill Frist owns less than 1% of the company.
Columbia/HCA has requested the ads be pulled, but the television stations say they can't do that. Federal law prohibits television stations from altering the content of or refusing to accept ads for someone running for national office, according to Mark Keown, general manager of Nashville's WDEF-TV.
Sledgehammer approach.In the beginning-or nearly the beginning-there were Harry and Louise, whom we may one day remember as kindly commentators on healthcare reform. Though national reform is dead in the water, market change moves inexorably forward, and many in its path see reform in any shape as a ravening beast. The California Nurses Association is advertising accordingly.
The CNA is in a bitter fight with Alta Bates Medical Center in Berkeley over the hospital's plan to eliminate some registered nurses and replace them with unlicensed staffers who would be supervised by licensed nurses. The hospital calls it "patient-focused care." The CNA, in an ad appearing last month in The New York Times, calls it "dangerous short-staffing (that) leads to death and injuries due to omissions and accidents.
"Hospitals and HMOs are cutting care to make record profits*.*.*.*(with) untested, experimental work redesign schemes," the ad says. "It's 3 a.m. Who will come when you need help?"
It's enough to keep anyone out of the hospital. On the other hand, isn't that the idea?
Select rebuke.The National Committee for Quality Assurance isn't happy with the way some HMO marketers are trying to use its prestigious seal of quality.
This month SelectCare of Troy, Mich., rewrote its print and broadcast ads after the NCQA objected to the line: "Select the only fully accredited healthcare plan to be ranked No. 1 in member satisfaction."
SelectCare's HMO was accredited by the NCQA, but the No. 1 rating refers to SelectCare's PPO, not its HMO. Moreover, the No. 1 rating came not from the NCQA, but from National Research Corp., a Lincoln, Neb., marketing company.
The NCQA has told three or four HMOs to revise their marketing materials in the last six weeks, said Ann Greiner, the NCQA's director of communications. She said misleading claims have been a growing problem since the NCQA began releasing data in June, and the independent organization will review its ad guidelines to give marketers "more direction."
HMOs are required to have ads that refer to the accreditation reviewed by the NCQA before they run. Ms. Greiner said she didn't know why that wasn't done in SelectCare's case.
Ms. Greiner said HMO medical directors understand the NCQA accreditation, but sometimes their marketing departments don't. "I don't think marketers are trying to snow the consumer. I think this is just part of their culture," she said.
TV update.Television hospital drama is hot again, ignited by "E.R.," a new hourlong NBC program that's soared to No. 4 in the Nielson ratings.
Back in June, Outliers told you about two new TV hospital dramas, E.R. and "Chicago Hope," which were set to air in the same time slot on Thursday nights this fall. While Chicago Hope has been shifted to a later hour so it's not head-to-head with E.R., E.R. is becoming the hottest TV medical series since "MASH" and "Marcus Welby, M.D."
In a cover story, Newsweek critiques E.R.'s remarkable success, saying the show had several strikes against it. Not the least of which: "Healthcare is a simultaneously boring and scary subject."
Diet pains.A disgruntled employee may be responsible for a decade-long practical joke on Sacred Heart Medical Center, Spokane, Wash.
The staff says it's fed up with a fraudulent diet plan that seems to have been circulated all over the world under the hospital's name. Since the early 1980s, there have been thousands of requests for the rapid-weight-loss diet.
"Calls have come from every state in the U.S., all over Canada, South America, Europe, the Middle East, most of the world," said Elaine Reid, the hospital's director of nutrition.
The hospital doesn't know how the diet deception got started, but Ms. Reid suspects an angry employee who left the cardiac department under unpleasant circumstances.
Soon, the hospital was sending out 100 letters a month to disclaim any role in the diet, billed as a plan for "overweight heart patients who need to lose weight rapidly (usually before surgery)" with the hospital's name at the top.
The hospital didn't develop the diet and doesn't endorse it. It's not nutritionally balanced, Ms. Reid said. "We don't want anything to do with it. It's a bizarre way of eating," she said.
The seven-day diet promises weight loss of 10 to 17 pounds. Day one of the menu, for example, consists of unlimited quantities of bananas and skim milk. On day three, dieters can have all the fresh fruits and vegetables they want but no potatoes. Day five allows up to 20 ounces of beef.
"If there'd been a monetary value attached to this, we'd have been millionaires," Ms. Reid said.