Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. officials are expected to meet this month with Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark (D-Calif.) to try to cool Stark's push for federal investigations into the business practices of the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain, MODERN HEALTHCARE* has learned.
An aide to Stark said the two sides are attempting to schedule a meeting by the end of the month.
It would be the second such meeting between Columbia officials and Stark's office. The first occurred in early June, following a May 29 letter from Stark to HCFA Administrator Bruce Vladeck. Stark, who sponsored federal anti-fraud laws bearing his name, asked Vladeck and HCFA to investigate whether any of Columbia's business deals with physicians violate self-referral prohibitions (June 3, p. 4).
Since then, Stark's office has been pressuring HCFA and HHS' inspector general's office to follow through on his request, several sources said last week. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity.
The sources reported that HFCA's Bureau of Policy Development, which is charged with drafting regulations to implement the "Stark II" law, has been collecting unsolicited information about Columbia's business deals with physicians. The bureau, in turn, has made that information available to agents of Operation Restore Trust, a special anti-fraud initiative launched in 1995 by HHS' inspector general's office, the sources said.
Officials from HCFA's policy development bureau declined to comment on their activities regarding Columbia. At deadline, spokesmen for HHS' inspector general's office were unavailable for comment.
The Stark II law, passed in 1993, bars doctors from referring Medicare or Medi-caid patients to 10 types of healthcare facilities or services in which they have a financial interest. Included are home health services and inpatient and outpatient hospital services.
"After the first meeting (with Stark), Columbia offered to come back and meet with us with more detailed information," Stark's aide said. "We intend to explore with them questions about their business practices and how they relate to the self-referral laws."
The aide described the matter as "a priority issue" for Stark, who has been a staunch opponent of physician ownership of healthcare facilities. He's also been a critic of for-profit takeovers of not-for-profit hospitals and conversions of not-for-profit managed-care plans into for-profit companies.
In his May 29 letter to HCFA, Stark said: "Columbia/HCA and its doctor affiliates are in the business of building medical trusts and destroying public and non-profit hospitals that take the tougher, less profitable cases."
At deadline, Columbia executives had not responded to an interview request.