Its time to stop playing politics with physician-owned specialty hospitals and embrace competition as the best solution to control costs, improve quality and expand access. The latest barb at specialty hospitals once again reveals that the case against physician ownership is weak and really is more about losing business than it is about serving patients.
In its Jan. 10 edition, the Washington Post broke the story about a report by HHS inspector generals office that was highly critical of physician-owned specialty hospitals. Specifically, the report questioned the ability of specialty hospitals to handle medical emergencies that arise at their facilities. (For more on the report, read this issues Top Story by Modern Physician reporter Andis Robeznieks.)
Curiously, the agency didnt officially release the report until later that day. The inspector generals office didnt send out its news release on the report being posted on the agencys Web site until about 5 p.m. EST. That, of course, means someone leaked the report to the Post at least a day earlier in order for it to run its story on Jan. 10.
Now, who would do such a thing, knowing that it would generate such negative publicity against physician-owned specialty hospitals? According to the report, the Senate Finance Committee requested the report. The chairman of the Senate Finance Committee is Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), a well-known critic of specialty hospitals.
The first quote in the Post story was from Grassley, who as one would expect, ripped into specialty hospitals. A few hours after the story came out, Grassley and fellow Finance Committee member and specialty hospital critic Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) released their official statement on the report, which at that point had yet to be released by HHS inspector generals office.
Minutes after the Grassley and Baucus statement came the written statement from the Federation of American Hospitals, which said the report illuminates the proven risks to patient safety at physician-owned specialty hospitals. The American Hospital Association followed with its statement hours later but again before the agency released the report. The AHA said the report confirms what we have long knownthat many physician-owned, limited-service hospitals fail to meet their patients basic healthcare expectations.
If the forces against physician ownership had a real case, why didnt HHS inspector generals office release the report in December 2007, when Congress was debating whether to close the legal exception that allows physicians to own hospitals. Or why didnt the January leakers do their job a month earlier, when it may have influenced the legislation?
The answer, of course, is the report was far from a slam dunk against physician ownership. More than half of the 109 specialty hospitals examined by HHS inspector generals office had emergency departments and whatever shortcomings the report found could be easily rectified by the facilities themselves.
Releasing the report in December could have ended the debate once and for all, and critics of specialty hospitals could not take that risk. Better to leak the report to the media in January and issue one-sided statements to keep the debate alive in 2008.