A federal investigation into the business tactics of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. in El Paso, Texas, may overlap with some of the concerns raised by two home-care agencies in a recent federal antitrust lawsuit.
Shepard's Crook Nursing Agency in Pampa, Texas, and San Antonio-based Columbia Home Health Services sued the Nashville-based company in U.S. District Court in El Paso in January 1996. Columbia Home Health is not affiliated with the national chain.
The two home-care agencies accuse Columbia of funneling their hospital patients to the company's own home-care services even when patients voiced a preference for another provider (Feb. 5, 1996, p. 18). They further accuse Columbia of pressuring physicians to direct patients to its own home-care agencies and of paying for patient referrals.
The lawsuit focuses on Columbia facilities in Pampa and El Paso. Shepard's Crook operates two agencies serving Pampa and other communities in the Texas panhandle area. It competes primarily with Pampa's only hospital, Columbia's 103-bed Columbia Panhandle Regional Medical Center.
The other private home-care agency competes with Columbia's 328-bed Columbia Medical Center-East, 184-bed Columbia Medical Center-West, a 49-bed psychiatric hospital and a 40-bed rehabilitation hospital, all in El Paso.
Columbia has won an early victory in the case. U.S. District Judge Royal Ferguson denied the two agencies' motion to convert the case into a class-action lawsuit against Columbia involving all the state's home-care providers not controlled by the chain.
The two agencies say they plan to continue pursuing the suit despite the setback.
Jeff Prescott, a Columbia spokesman, said, "If it goes forward, we will defend it vigorously."
He said the company has "no indication of any relationship between the suit and recent events in El Paso."
The home-care agencies are now seeking a court order that would require Columbia to turn over certain business documents related to its home-care operations. But Suzanne Wilkinson, co-owner of Shepard's Crook, said she fears they will have to wait awhile because the government appears to have confiscated most of Columbia's relevant records.