Until 1997 the phrase "Columbia ethics" might have been considered an oxymoron. That thought may still linger, but a testament to Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp.'s efforts to transform itself is that its ethics czar, Alan Yuspeh, was honored last month with the "Compliance Professional of the Year" award by the Health Care Compliance Association at its annual conference in Chicago.
Nashville-based Columbia, once the nation's largest hospital chain, hit the wall in 1997 in the face of FBI raids on its facilities, which culminated in the criminal indictments of four of its Florida financial executives and a precipitous drop in its stock. Since then, 26 whistleblower lawsuits have been filed against the chain. Eight have been unsealed, and the government has intervened in five.
Hospital Corporation of America founder Thomas Frist, M.D., who took over leadership of Columbia in summer 1997, hired former Washington lawyer Yuspeh as senior vice president of ethics, compliance and corporate responsibility. "In a very short period of time (Yuspeh) has provided the leadership to build a first-class ethics and compliance program that is becoming a model for the industry," he said.
Yuspeh won the award partly because he developed a solid compliance program and put it, along with Columbia's ethics policies and procedures, on the Internet for anyone to read and copy, said HCCA President Brent Saunders.
With degrees from Yale and Harvard universities and the Georgetown University Law School, Yuspeh, 50, spent three years as general counsel to the U.S. Senate's Armed Services Committee. He was executive director of the Defense Industry Initiative on Business Ethics and Conduct, a group of 50 defense contractors, from 1987 to 1997.
Since Yuspeh began working at Columbia, the chain has developed 13 specific policies on physician referrals. Each Columbia hospital's in-house counsel must approve management agreements, physician recruiting programs, leases and compensation. "We don't make loans to anyone on our medical staff anymore," Yuspeh said. "There are no volume discounts."
A spokeswoman for HHS' inspector general's office declined to comment on Yuspeh's award or Columbia's compliance program.
"Our goal is to articulate our values and aspirations, to make certain all employees know what the law is and let them know we expect them to do the right thing," Yuspeh said.
That process involves setting standards such as the new code of conduct, "One Clear Voice." It also means communicating policies through training videos and hands-on sessions.
"We want to send a clear leadership message," Yuspeh said. That includes "an absolute commitment by the boards and CEOs to do the right thing."