Two consumer groups that have been constant and vocal critics of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp. have egg on their faces this week after being forced to retract false statements they made about Richard Scott, Columbia's chairman and chief executive officer.
The blunder, by Consumers Union and a Washington state consumer group, raises questions about the groups' credibility and claims to be "unbiased" sources of information important to consumers.
The false statements came amid the two-week blitz of negative legal and media developments that hit the nation's largest for-profit hospital chain, starting with the March 19 raid by federal agents on its healthcare facilities in El Paso, Texas (March 24, p. 3).
After the raid and subsequent disclosure that federal investigators are looking at how the company's hospitals bill Medicare, Scott and other top Columbia executives were said to be spending time with company employees across the country to shore up any sinking morale problems and to reinforce company goals and values.
But the consumer groups accused Scott of squeezing in time on April 3 to personally lobby Washington state lawmakers for favorable revisions to the state's certificate-of-need law and pending not-for-profit hospital sales legislation. The accusation called into question Scott's stated commitment to addressing the company's troops in the field.
Trotting out its best populist rhetoric, the 50,000-member Washington State Citizen Action group contacted national and local media outlets, including MODERN HEALTHCARE, and claimed Scott personally flew into Olympia aboard a private company jet to lobby state lawmakers on the two bills.
In a joint press release, Consumers Union and Citizen Action said, "The embattled Columbia/HCA, which is currently under federal investigation for its billing and other practices, targets nonprofit and public hospital systems for acquisitions."
The release continued, quoting Julio Mateo Jr., an attorney with Consumers Union's office in San Francisco: "Consumer groups have challenged Columbia deals that undervalue the public assets invested in these hospitals and result in a significant decrease in hospital services that benefit local communities."
The press release said Scott "met with Rep. Clyde Ballard, the speaker of the House; Rep. Phil Dyer, chair of the House Health Committee; Sen. Dan McDonald, the Senate majority leader; and others."
The groups said the purpose of the visit was "to attach amendments to SB 5227. The amendments reportedly sought by Columbia/HCA would repeal Washington's existing certificate-of-need law as applied to hospitals, allowing for-profit corporations to build health facilities, including hospitals and ambulatory-care centers to compete with existing nonprofits without state oversight."
The problem is, Scott wasn't in Olympia.
MODERN HEALTHCARE reported the groups' claims and Columbia's denial about his whereabouts (April 7, p. 4).
After deadline, however, the consumer groups issued a retraction to their earlier statements.
They said they misidentified Scott as the Columbia executive in Olympia on April 3. As confirmed by Columbia, the executive in town was Dave Critchlow, a state government relations director. Accompanying Critchlow was Shel Lutz, a Columbia vice president for development.
The two consumer groups also said Critchlow and Lutz arrived in Olympia on a commercial airline flight, not a private company jet.
"I checked with about five sources and everyone said it was Rick Scott, but it turned out to be Dave Critchlow and Shel Lutz," said Ele Hamburger, health policy director at Washington State Citizen Action. "No one knows what (Scott) looks like. Our lobbyist said she heard from three people that it was Scott." And, she said, "I got calls from people the night before" about Scott being in town.
The groups defended their assertions about the federal investigations of Columbia, but they acknowledged the assertions were based solely on news accounts.
"That was a slanderous press release. It showed we'd already been convicted," said Lindy Richardson, a Columbia spokeswoman. "I think (Consumers Union's) members deserve more accountability and better behavior. If private business had the freedom they had in what they say, we would be held accountable."