HCA, Nashville, can't withhold from private plaintiffs internal documents that the company voluntarily gave to prosecutors during a federal investigation of its business practices, a three-judge appeals panel ruled in a 2-1 decision. The majority, from the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Cincinnati, said that HCA broadly waived its right to withhold internal audits when it cooperated with federal prosecutors during a Medicare fraud probe. The cooperation led to an $840 million settlement of all criminal and most civil charges against the company in December 2000. The dissenting judge wrote that defendants should be allowed to selectively waive their right to withhold privileged documents in negotiations with the government. Otherwise, defendants would be less inclined to cooperate with prosecutors, and less information would be available to the public, the judge said.
HCA spokesman Jeff Prescott said the company would have turned over the audits to prosecutors even with the knowledge that they would be disclosed. But Prescott said it was worth it to HCA to try to exclude them from the present case. The case consolidated a series of lawsuits brought by insurers and self-pay patients who allege that HCA's predecessor company, Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., overcharged them for services. The appeals panel's majority remanded the case to U.S. District Court in Nashville. HCA has not decided whether to appeal the ruling, Prescott said.