Hoping to thaw a chilly relationship with Rep. Fortney "Pete" Stark, Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. has asked Federation of American Health Systems President Thomas Scully to be a go-between to resolve questions Stark has raised over the chain's business practices, MODERN HEALTHCARE has learned.
Scully, however, downplayed the meeting, saying "it's no big deal."
But the California Democrat, in an unrelated move, continued to demonstrate his wariness of providers' business activities. He introduced a bill last week designed to protect patients from hospitals that steer discharged patients to the hospitals' ancillary services without giving patients a choice of ancillary providers.
Columbia executives were scheduled to meet with Stark and his staff on Sept. 12, but Columbia unexpectedly canceled the meeting, said a source who requested anonymity.
The meeting was to be the second in response to a call by Stark to have HCFA and HHS' inspector general's office investigate the nation's largest hospital chain. Specifically, Stark has alleged that the company's business arrangements with doctors may violate federal prohibitions on physician self-referrals (Aug. 12, p. 6).
Just before the canceled meeting, Stark fanned the flames by calling Columbia executives criminals in a speech to the American Medical Group Association (Sept. 16, p. 56). It's unclear whether Columbia canceled the meeting in response to Stark's speech.
Columbia executives didn't return several phone calls.
Rather than meeting face-to-face following Stark's remarks, executives of the Nashville, Tenn.-based chain tapped Scully to cool Stark's push for federal investigations of Columbia, the source said.
Scully subsequently met privately with Columbia Chief Operating Officer David Vandewater on Sept. 17. Scully and Stark's staff scheduled a meeting to discuss Columbia's concerns for late afternoon on Sept. 20.
"They (Stark's staff) want to know how Columbia does these deals, and I volunteered to talk to them," Scully said. "I'm happy to do it, and I'd do it for any member."
Meanwhile, Stark's latest self-referral bill would affect any hospital, for-profit or not-for-profit, that owns ancillary businesses such as home-care agencies and home medical equipment companies.
Many independent home-care agencies and equipment dealers have accused hospitals of using their control of acute-care services to illegally steer patients to their own ancillary businesses.
In introducing his bill, Stark said: "Hospitals are able to selectively refer patients that require more profitable services to their own entity while sending the less profitable cases to the nonhospital-based entities. The nonhospital entity is forced to either raise prices or leave the market. Worst of all, patients have no voice in deciding which entity provides the services."
The bill would require hospitals to provide discharged patients with a list of available ancillary services and let them choose their own providers. It also would require hospitals to report to HHS all the ancillary services in which they have an investment interest and report which services patients chose after discharge.
Stark already has successfully sponsored legislation that bars physicians from referring Medicare and Medicaid patients to a number of ancillary businesses they may own, including clinical laboratories.