Monday, April 13, 2015

"God Damn the Pusher Man" - Especially when Enabled by the FDA Revolving Door

Who is watching the watchers?  A story this week involving "speed" like drugs added to "dietary supplements" suggests how far the once respected US Food and Drug Administration has fallen.

An Amphetamine-Like Drug Spiking "Nutritional Supplements"

The story began with a paper by Cohen and colleagues published a relatively obscure medical journal, and then picked up by the news media.(1)  The main points of the article were:

BMPEA (beta-methylphenylethylamine) is a compound first synthesized in the 1930s as a "potential replacement" for amphetamines.  Animal tests revealed amphetamine-like properties.  The compound was never tested on humans, and never marketed.


BMPEA remained known only as a research chemical until early 2013 when the FDA identified BMPEA in multiple supplements labelled as containing ‘Acacia rigidula’, even though the stimulant has never been identified or extracted from Acacia rigidula, a shrub native to Texas.


More than two years after the FDA's discovery, the FDA has yet to warn consumers about the presence of the amphetamine isomer in supplements.

So Cohen et al undertook to identify "nutritional supplements" said to contain acacia rigidula and test them for BMPEA.  They found 21 such supplements, all of which tested positive. The authors then recommended,

that supplement manufacturers immediately recall all supplements containing BMPEA, and that the FDA use all its enforcement powers to eliminate BMPEA as an ingredient in dietary supplements. Consumers should be advised to avoid all supplements labelled as containing Acacia rigidula. Physicians should remain alert to the possibility that patients may be inadvertently exposed to synthetic stimulants when consuming weight loss and sports supplements.
Note that while the power of the FDA to regulate "nutritional supplements" is limited by a 1994 law, Cohen and colleagues wrote that it

is tasked with identifying and removing mislabelled, adulterated, and dangerous dietary supplements from the marketplace.

Since BMPEA is apparently not found in nature, and was not sold prior to 1994, putting BMPEA in a "dietary supplement" appears to be adulteration. 

The Risks of BMPEA in Nutritional Supplements

The study was then picked up by the media.  In the Los Angeles Times, Pieter Cohen, the lead author of the journal article,

said that while the effects of BMPEA are unknown, the compound is potentially dangerous. He said the FDA's failure to act is 'completely inexcusable.'

Furthermore, in a CBS report,

BMPEA has not been tested in humans, but led to increased blood pressure in cats and dogs.

'These are things that are signals that in humans will later turn into heart attacks, strokes and maybe even sudden death,' Cohen said.

The point is that while it has never been tested fully on humans, there is every reason to suspect that BMPEA acts very similarly to amphetamine, colloquially called "speed."  Amphetamines, as we discussed here, have dangerous side effects, including severe blood pressure elevations, and increased risks of stroke, myocardial infarction (heart attack), and other cardiac events.  The drugs also have a high potential for abuse. 

Why Did the FDA Do Nothing? 

Despite the likely riskiness of BMPEA, the FDA did nothing when it found it in numerous dietary supplements in 2013, and has not indicated that it will do anything now.  According to the LA Times,

FDA spokeswoman Juli Putnam acknowledged that the agency published research on the occurrence of BMPEA in Acacia rigidula supplements in 2013.

'While our review of the available information on products containing BMPEA does not identify a specific safety concern at this time, the FDA will consider taking regulatory action, as appropriate, to protect consumers,' she said.

In a Consumers Report item, Dr Cohen responded to that,

'It’s mind boggling,' said Pieter Cohen, M.D., the Harvard physician who is the lead author of the new study, published online in the journal Drug Testing and Analysis. 'The companies think they have complete impunity. They assume the FDA will do nothing about it. And they’re right.'

A post in the NY Times Well blog reiterated, 

Under federal law, dietary supplements — with some exceptions — can contain only ingredients that are part of the food supply or that were already on the market before 1994. Dr. Cohen said that BMPEA has never been sold as a food or supplement, and as a result any product that contains it is considered adulterated, which would give the F.D.A. the authority to send warning letters to companies that add it to their supplements.

Yet while the FDA had authority to do something, it did nothing.

Was the Revolving Door the Reason?

Back in 2014, we posted about two transitions through the revolving door by the FDA official in charge of the regulation of nutritional supplements.  We reproduce the relevant section of the post below:

This round trip through the door was noted rather obliquely in a New York Times article in late April, 2014, focused on how slowly the FDA has reacted to apparently dangerous "dietary supplements,"

Before joining the F.D.A. in 2011, Dr. [Daniel] Fabricant was a top executive at an industry trade group, the Natural Products Association.

The article had previously identified Dr Fabricant as

the director of the division of dietary supplement programs in the agency’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.


The F.D.A. recently announced that Dr. Fabricant is leaving the agency this month to return to the trade group as its chief executive.

While the NY Times article thus mentioned as an aside that a government official with major responsibility for regulating dietary supplements had these relationships with the dietary supplement industry, it did not then question whether that relationship had anything to do with slow responses by the FDA to reports of toxic dietary supplements. 

In 2014, the Times drew no conclusions about Mr Fabricant's career trajectory.  However, this time

But public health experts contend that the F.D.A.’s reluctance to act in this case is symptomatic of a broader problem. The agency is not effectively policing the $33 billion-a-year supplements industry in part because top agency regulators themselves come from the industry and have conflicts of interest, they say. In recent years, two of the agency’s top officials overseeing supplements — including one currently on the job — were former leaders of the largest supplement industry trade and lobbying group.

Daniel Fabricant, who ran the agency’s division of dietary supplement programs from 2011 to 2014, had been a senior executive at that trade group, the Natural Products Association, which has spent millions of dollars lobbying to block new laws that would hold supplement makers to stricter standards. He left the F.D.A. last year and returned to the association as its chief executive. His current replacement at the F.D.A.’s supplement division also comes from the trade group.

'To have former officials in the supplement industry become the chief regulators of that industry at the F.D.A. is like the fox guarding the hen house,' said Michael F. Jacobson, the executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.

Also, the new Well blog post noted 

Shortly before Dr. Fabricant left the F.D.A. in 2014 to return to the association, the F.D.A. hired another official from the group, Cara Welch. She is now the acting director of the agency’s supplement division. Dr. Cohen, who is also an internist at the Cambridge Health Alliance, said he repeatedly wrote to Dr. Welch asking what the agency was going to do about BMPEA, and that she did not respond.

Dr. Welch declined repeated requests for interviews. In a statement, Juli Putnam, an F.D.A. spokeswoman, said that the agency 'has found that hiring experienced leaders with diverse backgrounds in public health, industry, academia, and science enriches the professional environment and leads to the best health policy outcomes for the American public.'

Before joining the F.D.A., Dr. Welch was the vice president of scientific and regulatory affairs at the Natural Products Association, where she was a staunch defender of the supplement industry. When JAMA, a leading medical journal, raised concerns in a 2011 editorial that the federal law allowed the supplements industry to police itself, Dr. Welch responded that the industry had 'an excellent safety record.'

'The industry itself supports and has implemented strong self-regulatory mechanisms,' she said in an industry news release at the time.


To summarize, from 2011 to now, the leadership of the part of the FDA that is supposed to regulate dietary supplements was dominated by former top executives of the Natural Products Association, the trade organization for dietary supplement manufacturers.  In 2013, FDA scientists found that multiple dietary supplements contained BMPEA, a compound closely related to amphetamines, and hence potentially dangerous and addictive, although it had never been tested on or previously used by humans.  Although the FDA had authority to do something about this apparent adulteration of these products, it so far had done nothing.  Thus it appears that the currently legal revolving door that allows government regulation to be run by people who come directly from the industries that government is supposed to regulate could be responsible for exposing people to dangerous, addictive drugs.

Remember, BMPEA is a first cousin of amphetamine, amphetamine is "speed," and as the drug epidemics of the 1960s and 1970s showed us, "speed kills."  So a plausible argument is that the revolving door, as relevant to FDA, has enabled manufacturers of nutritional supplements to become the "pusher man," a la the Steppenwolf sound track of Easy Rider,

As we noted here, some experts consider the revolving door per se to be corruption, not merely conflict of interest.  The current case plausibly suggests not only that the revolving door is corrupt, but that when applied to health care can pose dangers to patients, not merely danger to government finances, government ethics, and the integrity of representative democracy.  Nonetheless, up to now, a few people have decried the revolving door (and very occasionally in health care), but nothing has been done about it.   

So it is surprising that today (13 April, 2015), the New York Times published an editorial inspired by the BMPEA case, which concluded

consumer advocates are surely right that putting the industry in charge of supplement regulation is like appointing the fox to guard the henhouse. Clearly, the F.D.A. should not allow industry insiders to fill key positions. A permanent solution is for Congress to enact conflict-of-interest laws forcing employees above a certain grade level at any agency to recuse themselves from official actions that affect a former employer or client, including trade associations and their members.

As a minimum, that would be a good start.  Unfortunately, even a NY Times editorial hardly guarantees action.  At least, however, the problem of the revolving door as a danger to patients has gotten a little less anechoic.

As we last wrote, the continuing egregiousness of the revolving door in health care shows how health care leadership can play mutually beneficial games, regardless of the their effects on patients' and the public's health.  Once again, true health care reform would cut the ties between government and corporate leaders that have lead to government of, for and by corporate executives rather than the people at large


1.  Cohen PA, Bloszies C, Yee C, Gerona R. An amphetamins isomer whose efficacy and safety in humans has never been studied, beta-methylphenylethylamine (BMPEA), is found in multiple dietary supplements.  Drug Testing Analysis 2015; DOI: 10.1002/dta.1793  Link here.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

Three More Settlements by Medtronic of Allegations of Deceptive Behavior, but No Umpire Says "You're Out"

Medtronic, the giant, previously US based device maker settled three lawsuits, all alleging deceptive practices, over three months in early 2015.  I will summarize the settlements in chronological order.

Medtronic Subsidiary EV3 Settled Suit Alleging it Coached Hospitals about How to Overbill Medicare

This was actually an old case, originally against a company that Medtronic bought out, but only settled this year, in February.  As reported by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune,

A Plymouth medical device company owned by Medtronic has agreed to pay $1.25 million to settle a federal lawsuit alleging that it wasted Medicare dollars.

The medical device company EV3 is settling a whistleblower’s claims that in 2006 and 2007, a company it acquired improperly coached hospitals across the country on how to overbill Medicare for minimally invasive procedures to remove hardened plaque from patients’ arteries using one of its devices, called the Silver Hawk.

Specifically, former sales representative Amanda Cashi alleged that the company told hospitals that 80 percent of their patients for the Silver Hawk procedure should stay overnight in the hospital following an atherectomy, leading to higher Medicare payments. The promises of higher reimbursement were intended to drive sales of Silver Hawk devices. Cashi and federal prosecutors who joined her lawsuit said most of the patients should have gotten lower-paying same-day procedures in an outpatient setting.

As is standard operating procedure for such litigation,

[Irish Medtronic subsidiary] Covidien, which negotiated the settlement agreement, is not admitting wrongdoing and specifically denies the allegations in the six-year-old lawsuit, the settlement agreement says.

'Medtronic is committed to the highest standards of ethical conduct, and we take responsibility for delivering outstanding results to our partners, patients and colleagues,' a company statement said. 'The case relates to historical conduct that took place under Fox Hollow. … We are pleased to have the matter resolved.'

Of course, there may be a bit of irony there, since I doubt that the original manufacturer of Silver Hawk, FoxHollow, or its successors were pushing to get the case resolved quickly, and Medtronic likely ultimately financially benefited from the prolonged delay. 

Note that in 2005 we first posted about the questionable clinical research data that FoxHollow used to promote the device

Medtronic Settled Suit Alleging it Gave Kickbacks to Doctors to Promote Unjustified Procedure that Used Medtronic Neuromodulation Device

Just two days later, the Star-Tribune reported,

Medtronic PLC will pay $2.8 million to the U.S. Justice Department to settle a false-claims case that alleged that the Minnesota devicemaker made illegal payments to doctors to recommend a medical procedure that was neither safe nor effective.

In particular,

The case surrounds allegations of corporate promotion of uses of a neurostimulation device that were not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The Justice Department said Medtronic paid doctors in 20 states 'tens of thousands of dollars' to encourage health providers to use the device off-label.

This 'created a new, rapidly expanding market for their devices and a potentially huge source of profit for themselves at the expense of the federal Treasury,' the government said in a federal lawsuit.

As in the previous case, the settlement allowed Medtronic to deny "it did anything wrong."

Medtronic Settled Suit that Alleged it Sold Chinese or Malaysian Spinal Surgery Devices as Made in the USA

Finally, in April, 2015, the Star-Tribune again reported,

In its third federal settlement in two months, Medtronic PLC has agreed to pay $4.4 million to settle allegations that it deliberately violated U.S. law requiring that devices sold to the military be manufactured in the United States or its international trading partners.

The False Claims Act lawsuit, handled by Minnesota U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger’s office, alleged among other things that the formerly Fridley-based med-tech company brought spinal surgery devices in from China and then relabeled them 'Manufactured in Memphis, TN,' where its spinal division is based, before selling them to the government.

Of course,

Medtronic spokeswoman Cindy Resman said that although the company has since improved its country-of-origin disclosures in government contracts, it 'makes no admission that any of its activities were improper or unlawful.'

The settlement focused on 'a limited number of accessories and surgical instruments used in spinal surgeries that were provided to Medtronic by third-party suppliers and were manufactured in China or Malaysia. The overwhelming majority of Medtronic’s products are manufactured in the United States or its trading partners, such as Mexico or Ireland,' she said in an e-mail.

But can you believe them now?


Medtronic made three settlements over three months, all of allegations that it deceived, directly or indirectly, doctors, patients, or the government.  These settlements were not isolated events.  In June, 2014 we discussed a settlement Medtronic made of allegations that  Medtronic gave kickbacks (that is, bribes) to doctors to get them to use its cardiac devices.  Previously, as we noted then, ...   As Bloomberg summarized,

 Medtronic agreed in 2007 to pay about $130 million to settle consumer suits accusing the device maker of hiding defects in its defibrillators. The company agreed to a $268 million settlement of suits in 2010 over allegations that fractured wires in another line of defibrillators caused at least 13 patient deaths.

In fact, Medtronic has provided our blog with lots of material.  We first discussed detailed and vivid allegations that Medtronic had been paying off doctors starting in 2003 here in 2006.  Medtronic has been involved in other lawsuits alleging various kinds of deception.
-  In 2011, it settled for $23.5 million two other federal lawsuits alleging it paid kickbacks to encourage physicians to implant its devices (look here).  
- In 2008, Medtronic subsidiary Kyphon settled a suit for $75 million and signed a corporate integrity agreement for allegations that it defrauded Medicare through a scheme that lead to excessive hospitalization for patients who received the company's spine surgery device (link here)
- In 2006, Medtronic subsidiary Sofamor Danek settled for $40 million allegations that it gave kickbacks to doctors in the form of sham consulting fees and lavish trips (look here).

One loses count of all the settlements and cases in which Medtronic was accused of deceptive practices.  Some settlements were for larger amounts, some for smaller.  Yet none of the settlements were large enough to really affect a company which reported earnings of just under $1 billion in 2014 (per this WSJ article.)   None of the later legal settlements seem to have taken into account the company's previous record.

But this is typical of how legal settlements made by large health care corporations are handled.  Almost never is the settlement big enough to have deterrent value.   

The revenues of the company could very well have been increased by the activities alleged to have occurred in the course of this litigation, and these revenues were likely used to justify outsize compensation for top corporate managers.  According to the company's 2014 proxy statement, in fiscal 2014, CEO Omar Ishrak got $12,118,846 in total compensation.  All other listed executives got at least $3.5 million.  In none of these cases did anyone at the company who might have authorized, directed, or implemented bad, and particularly deceptive behavior suffer any negative consequences.   

But this is typical of the impunity seemingly granted to top health care organizational managers.

In baseball, it's three strikes and you're out.  For the leaders of big health care corporations, however, no matter how many strikes your company makes, you never seem to be out.  Despite a continuing stream of ethical issues occurring on their watch, management usually succeeds in becoming filthy rich.

Maybe that would change if the public, or health care professionals, knew all about such things.  However, these settlements remain anechoic.  Although the latest Star-Tribune article did note that the latest 2015 settlement occurred after two previous settlements this year, none of the reporting about these settlements seems to have noted all the previous settlements.  Finally, the discussion of these cases involving a prominent device company and multiple allegations of deceptive, dishonest, unethical behavior never seems to go beyond business sections of media outlets.  Even though such continuing dishonest behavior could have corrosive cumulative effects on health care ethics, the morale of health professionals who have to deal with such deception, and patients' and the public's health, discussion of it never makes it into the medical and health care literature, a striking example of the anechoic effect.

Maybe if more health care professionals, and the public at large, knew the story better, they might ask what sort of stewardship was exerted by the Medtronic board of directors? Maybe they could ask current Medtronic board members, like Rensellaer Polytechnic Institute President Shirley Ann Jackson, and  former US Secretary of Health and Human Services Michael O Levitt,  and former board members, like Dr Victor J Dzau, who was pressured to leave the Medtronic board after he became President of the Institute of Medicine and this membership was noticed (look here)  These board members were making over $200,000 a year, and piling up Medtronic stock, supposedly for exerting stewardship over the company.

But typically board members of big health care organizations remain unaccountable.  

There seems to be increasing recognition that the continuing rise in US health care costs is unsustainable, and that these costs are not buying us good health care.  There are calls to avoid unnecessary, and sometimes harmful care.  Yet there is a persistent disconnect between how continuing dishonest behavior by health care organizations, impunity of their leaders, and lack of accountability by their board members fuel rising costs, shrinking access, and bad outcomes for patients.

To truly reform health care, we will have to at least recognize the causes of the current dysfunction.  Recognizing how health care dysfunction is created by unaccountable, dishonest leadership should lead to true reform that would promote well-informed, honest, accountable leadership that puts patients' and the public's health ahead of personal gain.  

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Not with a bang but with a whimper

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper
     -- T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, 1925

Those across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania who lived through the disaster known as AHERF, the story of the Allegheny Health and Education Research Foundation, ending in one of the biggest non-profit health care bankruptcies in US history, may now note in passing the death some months ago--just recently announced--of its architect, one Sherif Abdelhak.

Many books and articles have been written about this hubristic exercise in go-go corporatism. It was a fiasco that left many endowments decimated and the remnants of two Philadelphia medical schools in shreds.

For those who lived through that era, the death of "the sheriff" is bittersweet. It has passed virtually unnoticed until now. But it's worth remarking, not just for its local but also its national meaning. By the high-rolling mid-1990s, tellingly, the Association of American Medical College's prestigious Cooper Lectureship led through the following roster. Here is the list for the decade commencing 1985 and leading to its 1995 apogee

  • 1985 John A. D. Cooper
  • 1986 Paul B. Beeson
  • 1987 Uwe E. Reinhardt
  • 1988 Henry G. Cisneros
  • 1989 Lauro F. Cavazos
  • 1990 John F. Sherman
  • 1991 Margaret Catley-Carlson
  • 1992 Leroy Hood
  • 1993 Bruce M. Alberts
  • 1994 Merwyn R. Greenlick
  • 1995 Sherif S. Abdelhak

A nice progression. Three years later, in 1998, AHERF and Allegheny University of the Health Sciences, went belly up. Its successors are still recovering. But too many parts of our health educational and health care systems still show signs of the sheriff's avaricious behavior.

Friday, April 03, 2015

The Troubles at Cooper Continue, Lately Gruesomely, But Will Its Leadership and Governance Change This Time? - Part II: the History since 2005

In our most recent post, we noted the latest tragic, and gruesome development at Cooper Health System, the largest hospital system in southern New Jersey.  Months after the system CEO, John F Sheridan, and his wife Joyce were found dead after a fire in their home, local law enforcement concluded that Mr Sheridan murdered his wife, set fire to the house, then committed suicide.  It turns out this is just the latest, albeit possibly most tragic and grisly, troubling news from that health care system.

Our last post summarized the history from 1978, including:
-  Seven people, including the hospital system chief financial officer, confessed to and/or found guilty of participating in an embezzlement scheme that cost the hospital more than $21 million
-  An internal investigation was suppressed for years, but later revealed several severe management problems
-  The media revealed multiple conflicts of interest affecting the system's board of trustees, including members of the committee that performed the investigation
-  One member of the board of trustees who participated in the internal investigation was later convicted of arranging his wife's murder
-  Resulting financial losses caused layoffs and service reductions, some of which affected the hospital system's charitable mission
-  The stories received little attention outside the region, and apparently did not result in any fundamental changes in governance or the structure of leadership.

Since 2005, there have been other troubles at Cooper.

Conflicts of Interest Involving Local and State Politics

Board Chairman George E Norcross III

In 2006, the Philadelphia Inquirer found close ties between NJ politicians and hospital leaders (see this post).  In particular, the story noted "the board of South Jersey's major hospital, Cooper University Hospital in Camden, is chaired by the region's most powerful political figure, Democratic power broker George E. Norcross III."

In 2012, as we posted here, Mr Norcross' relationships became more evident.   The New York Times reported that a story about his conflicts of interest had been held from publication by the Inquirer because Mr Norcross was part of a business group seeking to purchase that newspaper.  When the Inquirer story finally came out, it stated firms with financial relationships to the hospital under Norcross had donated generously to Norcross' political allies, and that Norcross had influenced the creation of relationships with these firms.  It suggested that Norcross' political influence had resulted in an unusual level of state financial support for the hospital system.  It noted that the law firm for which Cooper CEO John F Sheridan had previously worked did lobbying for the hospital.  It noted that the hospital did millions of dollars of business with firms tied to hospital trustees, including Mr Norcross.

Trustee Emeritus Peter Driscoll

Recent reporting after Mr Sheridan's death suggested the rehabilitation of former board chairman Peter Driscoll under Chairman Norcross.  Mr Driscoll was the former board chair who resigned in 1999 after the embezzlement scandal report and revelations about conflicts of interest affecting the board were finally made public, and the hospital system was in financial difficulty.  However, by 2014, he was identified by the board as a "trustee emeritus."  Per the Philadelphia Inquirer, after the fire at the Sheridan house was attributed to arson,

'If they had died because the house was on fire, that would be a terrible, terrible tragedy,' said Cooper Health System trustee Peter E. Driscoll, a senior member of the Haddonfield law firm of Archer & Greiner. '. . .I don't know what to make of it. I can't imagine anybody that would want to do something like this.'
New Vice President Kevin O'Dowd and his Family

Also after Mr Sheridan's death, the hospital system hired a new top manager with his own extensive political connections and conflicts of interest.  Per the Inquirer,

Gov. Christie's chief of staff, Kevin O'Dowd, will step down this month to work for Cooper University Hospital in Camden, nearly a year after the governor named O'Dowd his pick for attorney general.

O'Dowd, whose selection as attorney general never moved forward after controversy arose over lane closures on the George Washington Bridge, will serve as senior executive vice president and chief administrative officer at Cooper, where he will focus on business development, Christie officials said. He will start at Cooper in January.

The conflict was

 O'Dowd's wife, Mary, serves as commissioner of the state Department of Health.

A story made that more explicit,

 State Health Commissioner Mary O’Dowd will refrain from making decisions that would directly affect Cooper University Hospital in Camden after her husband accepted a senior management job there, officials said Friday night.

The move was made to avoid any conflicts of interest as the state Department of Health licenses and inspects hospitals, and doles out money to compensate them for treating uninsured charity care patients. Cooper will receive $37.3 million in charity care payments from the state this year, the fifth highest amount in the state.

A story in the NJ Spotlight suggested that would not solve the problem,

The question that the O’Dowds will have to face is whether they can overcome even the perception of a conflict of interest when their jobs so pervasively present opportunities for such a situation.

'It’s a very, very tenuous situation,' said William Schluter, a former longtime member of the State Ethics Commission and state senator.

He noted that nearly everything that senior hospital executives do in their jobs is influenced by state regulations.

'It’s a situation that I sure as heck wouldn’t want to be in,' said Schluter, adding that he expects second-guessing in the media and by elected officials as the state handles issues affecting Cooper.

Just to ice the cake for Mr O'Dowd, the Courier-Post noted that Mr O'Dowd's job at Cooper could be considered an example of the revolving door, albeit delayed,

O'Dowd, previously the governor's deputy chief counsel, also worked under Christie at the U.S. Attorney's Office for New Jersey.

During seven years as an assistant United States attorney, O'Dowd oversaw a securities and healthcare fraud unit. He also prosecuted cases ranging from child pornography distribution, cybercrime and drug trafficking.

O'Dowd served earlier as a state Deputy Attorney General, where his responsibilities included providing legal counsel to the state Department of Health.

As US Attorney, Christie, possibly with the aid of Mr O'Dowd, pursued a deferred prosecution agreement for UMDNJ, then Cooper's primary academic affiliation, for a complicated set of allegations that we discussed extensively in the past (look at this post and follow links backward).  

Late CEO John F Sheridan and Family

Apparently only after Mr Sheridan's death did the media report extensively on his political connections.  The earliest report I found was in the Philadelphia Inquirer from September 28, 2014.  He served

on Gov. Christie's health-care transition subcommittee in 2010.

The statement said he was New Jersey commissioner of transportation under Gov. Thomas H. Kean and served as New Jersey deputy attorney general and assistant counsel for the New Jersey Turnpike Authority, and was counsel for the New Jersey Senate majority.


 his son Mark - a prominent lawyer ... has represented Christie in the Bridgegate scandal added,

John Sheridan Jr., the CEO of Cooper University Health System ... previously spent 40 years in New Jersey government


He has held positions on Gov. Thomas Kean's cabinet as transportation commissioner and chairman of the New Jersey Transit board, as well as held roles on transition teams for Gov. Chris Christie and Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. 


 Earlier in his career, he served as Deputy Attorney General of the State of New Jersey, Assistant Counsel to Gov. William T. Cahill, General Counsel to the New Jersey Turnpike Authority and Counsel to the New Jersey Senate Majority.

Finally, his son

Mark Sheridan, a partner at Squire Patton Boggs, acts as general counsel for the New Jersey Republican State Committee.

 So, in the years since conflicts of interest at the board of trustees level were noted as part of the investigation after the management embezzlement scandal at Cooper, many more apparent conflicts affecting top managers and board members have appeared, most recently in late 2014. 

Settlement of Allegations of Kickbacks

In 2013, the media reported that Cooper settled federal allegations that it gave kickbacks to doctors to induce referrals.  As reported by the Inquirer,

The Cooper Health System in Camden has agreed to pay $12.6 million to settle a whistle-blower lawsuit alleging that it made improper payments to doctors in an effort to build its cardiology business, the U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey said Thursday.

From October 2004 through 2010, local doctors were paid $18,000 to attend four meetings of the Cooper Heart Institute Advisory Board in any given year under 'consulting' and 'compensation' agreements, in possible violation of antikickback laws, state and federal law enforcement officials contended.

The whistle-blower was South Jersey cardiologist Nicholas L. DePace. He attended an advisory board meeting in 2007 and was convinced that the board's purpose was not to provide advice to Cooper, but to be a source of patient referrals to the Heart Institute, according to a lawsuit he filed in 2008.

'He was invited to be a member of the advisory board. He attended a meeting and it quickly became apparent to him what the advisory board really was. It was sitting and listening to lectures and not providing advisory services,' said Michael A. Morse, a partner in Pietragallo, Gordon, Alfano, Bosick & Raspanti L.L.P. in Philadelphia, one of DePace's lawyers.

As is typical of legal settlements involving prominent health care organizations,

Cooper admitted no liability.

'After more than three years of extended discussions with government lawyers, we decided, in the best interests of Cooper, to settle our dispute without the admission of wrongdoing to avoid the burdens and uncertainties of a protracted litigation,' Cooper president and chief executive officer John P. Sheridan Jr. said. 'This allows us to focus our full energies on serving our community.'

In a note to Cooper employees, Sheridan said the board was established to 'improve the quality and responsiveness of our cardiac programs' and 'was reviewed by outside legal counsel before it began operations.

However, given that the Inquirer reported that "the $12.6 million penalty is financially significant for Cooper," one wonders why it was made if hospital leadership felt that the case against it was poor.  

So years after the embezzlement scandal, another scandal involving allegations of illegal behavior was settled.  This time, there was no trial, but since the settlement was financially burdensome for the hospital, it is plausible that it resulted from managers' realization that they would not have a good defense against the charges at trial. 

The Death of the Sheridans

Mr Sheridan became CEO of Cooper in 2008.  As noted in the Gloucester County Times,

On Feb. 7 John P. Sheridan Jr., was appointed president and chief executive officer of The Cooper Health System by the Cooper Board of Trustees. Sheridan joined Cooper as senior executive vice president in July 2005 and has served as president of Cooper University Hospital since September of 2007.

'Cooper has grown dramatically in recent years and is positioned as the academic medical leader of South Jersey,' said George E. Norcross III, chairman of the Board of Trustees at Cooper.  'John Sheridan is a proven leader. He has the skills required to build-out our $500 million health care campus in Camden, implement our suburban strategy and achieve our vision of creating the premier academic health care system in South Jersey and the Delaware Valley.'

As of early 2014, he was getting substantial compensation typical for a hospital system CEO, per NJBiz, "John T. Sheridan Jr. (of the $913 million Cooper Health System) received $963,433."

In late September, 2014, Mr Sheridan and his wife were found dead in a house fire.  Initial reports suggested the fire was accidental.  Then it was declared to be arson.  Then Joyce Sheridan's death was found to be the result of a homicide.  Finally, as we posted here, law enforcement declared that Mr Sheridan killed his wife, set the fire, and then committed suicide.

That news was so horrendous that it dumbfounded Cooper insiders.  As reported by the Inquirer,

 'It's not something I can imagine,' said Peter Driscoll, a Cooper Health System trustee emeritus and a senior member of the Haddonfield law firm Archer & Greiner. 


In a brief statement, Cooper University Health Care called the prosecutor's findings 'unfathomable to us.'

I can only hope that they will get over their shock and realize that the institution really has some big problems. 


Since 1978, there have been multiple stories about mismanagement, conflicts of interest affecting managers and board members, and crimes committed or alleged to have been committed by management and at least one trustee at Cooper Hospital/UMC which then became Cooper Health System.  Despite these often lurid stories, there is no indication that there has been a fundamental change in the governance of the institution.  While managers have come and gone, sometimes under difficult circumstances, there is no indication that how managers were hired has changed.  Since the early 1990s, there has been no obvious effort made by management or board members to change, at least not one announced publicly.  There has been no outside investigation.

Given that the hospital system has long enjoyed a cozy relationship with state government, including both the legislative and executive branch, maybe it has been easy to go along to get along.  More cozy relationships, including some with ownership of the news media, may have helped to keep this story anechoic outside of the region.

Yet the cumulative story is so striking that it should prompt national attention, and inspire some real hard thought about how health care leadership and governance has gotten so bad.

To repeat what I have said all too often, and I admit with little impact so far....

True health care reform requires governance that is accountable, transparent, true to the organization's mission, and honest, ethical, and without conflicts of interest; and leadership that understands health care, upholds its values, is honest, ethical, and without conflicts of interest, is transparent and open, and is willing to be accountable and subject to appropriate incentives. 

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

The Troubles at Cooper Continue, Lately Gruesomely, But Will Its Leadership and Governance Change This Time? - Part I: Historical Background

Allegations of Murder-Suicide by a Hospital System CEO

This will be a hard series of posts to write. It wa triggered by the latest, and perhaps most gruesome chapter in the troubled history of the leadership of Cooper Health, the largest hospital system in southern New Jersey (known locally as South Jersey).  As reported by the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 28, 2015,

Cooper University Health System CEO John P. Sheridan Jr. stabbed his wife to death, set their bedroom on fire, and then took his own life, authorities have concluded, closing a six-month investigation into the deaths that shocked New Jersey's political and civic communities.

The Somerset County Prosecutor's Office announced its results in a news release Friday, citing forensic evidence and a lengthy probe that included more than 180 interviews.

But it offered no conclusive motive to explain why Sheridan, described by family and friends as mild-mannered, would brutally stab his wife and kill himself.

'Many possible scenarios and theories were considered,' the prosecutor's office said in a statement after months of virtual silence. The evidence 'supports the conclusion that John Sheridan fatally stabbed Joyce Sheridan, set the fire, and committed suicide.'

The Story in Context: a Long History of Leadership and Governance Problems 

We have often discussed bad leadership of health care organizations, and written a lot about the contrast between the munificent compensation paid to non-profit hospital CEOs and the lack of evidence justifying such pay.  However, a murder-suicide allegedly perpetrated by the CEO of a large non-profit hospital system is way at the tail of the curve of questionable managerial behavior.

But it turns out that Cooper Health System has a very long record of leadership and governance troubles.  The current chapter is the latest, and possibly most gruesome, in this sorry series.  However, the context of this history has been lacking in the recent coverage, which has been so far limited to local media.  The history deserves a more complete discussion, and maybe then it could lead to some reconsideration at least of this one institution's leadership and governance, and perhaps the larger troubles in leadership and governance in health care.
Thus this post will summarize the history that I could find up to 2005.  A second post will summarize more recent history up to and through the terrible deaths of John and Joyce Sheridan.  

In the interests of full disclosure, I started my faculty career at what was then Cooper Hospital - University Medical Center, the main teaching hospital for the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) - Robert Wood Johnson Medical School (RWJMS) branch at Camden, NJ.  During my four years there, 1983-87, I was impressed with the dedication of the physicians, nurses and other health care professionals there.  However, even given my naivete at a young faculty member, the leadership of the institution, which was one of the early adapters of the generic management model,  seemed strange.  Little did I know how strange it was.

In the late 1990s, when I became seriously concerned about what I know call leadership and governance problems in health care, I ran into some folks from South Jersey who told me that Cooper had a tumultuous history since I left.  I got around to researching it, leading to an article in our local American College of Physicians newsletter.  The article, to which I had linked here, is no longer available on the internet.  So I have reposted it below, with some minor modifications, put in square brackets .  Again, the history is of major problems with leadership and governance at Cooper that had inspired no reconsideration by 2005.

The Curiously Quiet Case of Cooper’s Corrupt CFO

Embezzlement by Top Management

    In 1994, two powerful executives at Cooper admitted their guilt in an elaborate embezzlement scheme.  In 1978, John H. Crispo, the owner of Financial Management Corporation Inc., to keep his contract with the hospital, began paying monthly kickbacks of $2500-$10,000 to John M. Sullivan, the Cooper Executive Vice President for Finance.  Sullivan then referred delinquent hospital accounts for collection to a new company Crispo set up.  In turn, Crispo repaid him $340,000 in more kickbacks.  Sullivan recruited Cooper’s Controller, P. John Lashkevich, and the three devised a scheme to defraud the hospital using fabricated bills, established a fictitious company to launder money, and falsified tax returns.  A prosecutor claimed “Mr Sullivan blew this money on wine, women, parties, and a lavish lifestyle,”which included trips with girlfriends to the Plaza Hotel, and jewelry shopping at Tiffany’s.  Sullivan had driven a Porsche, and lived in a $700,000 house.  The conspirators also bought cars, boats, and racehorses.

    Other conspirators were also found and prosecuted.  Helene Weinstein admitted to helping establish a shadow company as a conduit for Sullivan to send money from the hospital to his estranged wife, Elarba Pagan.  Pagan was accused of receiving money sent by Sullivan from Cooper to another firm.  Weinstein testified that Pagan carried “briefcases of cash from the hospital to shop in New York for $1500 shoes.”  Also, Cooper’s Vice President for Finance, Robert Schmid Jr, admitted embezzling money from Cooper to pay for home improvements. Finally, Thomas J. Damadio admitted helping launder up to $600,000 stolen from Cooper, and evading income taxes.  

    Sullivan was sentenced to 55 months in federal prison, Lashkevich, 25, Pagan, eight, Weinstein, three years of probation, Damadio, six months of house arrest.  Crispo died before serving prison time.

The Internal Report, and the Murder Conviction of One of Its Authors

    After these stories became public in 1994, Cooper’s Board of Trustees established a special committee to investigate its financial operations, which included Peter E. Driscoll, Chairman of the Board, Kevin G. Halpern, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), and a local Rabbi, Fred Neulander.  The hospital pledged to make its investigation public, but then fought to keep it secret.  Its report was finally released in 1998, after a discovery motion in a civil lawsuit.  Prior to then, the Philadelphia Inquirer had revealed numerous financial conflicts of interest affecting Board members,  including those on the special committee.  For example, Cooper paid the law firm of Archer & Greiner, of which Driscoll was a senior partner, $2.1 million over three years from 1993-96.

    The report revealed that the conspiracy had bilked the hospital of at least $21.8 million from 1987 to 1994, while “Cooper has been the victim of a massive crime wave.”  It stated Sullivan, Lashkevich, and Crispo “had unrestrained and absolute control of virtually all the important financial functions at Cooper and they took full criminal advantage....” It also noted that “employees who became suspicious and questioned the accounting practices or tried to alert management were intimidated, transferred, or dismissed by the high-ranking executives.”  Furthermore, it suggested “the ability to bypass or defeat controls grew from an institutional culture that delegated and outsourced too much responsibility, without developing effective controls....” The report also raised questions about how the internal investigation was conducted.  It noted that Driscoll and Halpern “often locked horns with [the other] committee members....”  Driscoll had objected when other board members called for an independent investigation.  Halpern and Driscoll resigned their positions within days of the forced release of the report.

    One member of the special committee became particularly notorious.  Soon after the internal investigation was set in motion in 1994 Rabbi Neulander’s wife had been murdered.  Soon after, Neulander had failed a polygraph test when questioned about it.  He then resigned his clerical position after his extramarital affairs with members of his congregation were revealed.  In September, 1998, he was charged with hiring the “hit men” who committed the murder.  In 2002, he was convicted  and sentenced to life in prison.

The Aftermath, Financial Woes and Impact on Patient Care

    By 1997, Cooper was in financial trouble, although none of its managers ever admitted a connection to the conspiracy and resulting losses.  However, during a related civil lawsuit, Cooper officials alleged “the hospital’s general operating fund was depleted” by the conspiracy.  Cooper began merger discussions with several partners, including AHERF, although none were ultimately successful. Physicians started leaving in 1997, when all but one full-time cardiologists announced their resignations.  Cooper revealed a $16 million loss for 1998, the largest ever incurred by a New Jersey hospital.  Its bonds were down-graded to junk. The hospital then announced that it would stop accepting uninsured patients for elective treatments, departing from its historic mission of charitable care.  Losses continued in 1999, again totaling $16 million, leading to additional budget cuts.  [CEO Halpern and Chairman of the Board Driscoll resigned within days of each other in 1999, both denying their actions were related to the report.]  By 2000, the hospital had cut its work-force to 3100, from 4000 in early 1999. and had closed various clinical sites and units.  Only thereafter did Cooper began posting budget surpluses.  [By 2002, more physicians quit Cooper en bloc, and the hospital was on its second new CEO since Mr Halpern.]

 The Lurid Stories Remain Anechoic

    The only published reaction to Cooper’s woes came from the related legal proceedings.  The prosecutor in Sullivan’s trial claimed that his thefts were so big that they “threatened the financial stability of the hospital,” and “hurt the image of the city as a whole.”  At Pagan’s sentencing hearing, Judge Joseph H. Rodriguez stated “society could not tolerate a system in which hospital executives ‘rake millions off the top’ that were intended for medical care for the poor.”

    It does seem likely that Cooper’s scandals had major effects on its patient care and academic missions.  Yet, I could find nothing  published about such effects.  Despite the luridness of this case, I also found no reaction from local or national medical groups, from academic organizations, accrediting groups, or government agencies.


In 2005, I wrote,...  The case of Cooper’s corrupt executives can be viewed as the forerunner to the even more massive bankruptcy of AHERF [Allegheny Health Education and Research Foundation, see posts here].  One can only speculate that learning the lessons of the Cooper case could have mitigated the AHERF disaster.  However, as noted in my last article,  the lessons from AHERF are also not widely known.  Yet, as George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

As I will address in another post, events at Cooper after 2005 also generated few echoes, up to the latest tragedy.  These events did not suggest much had been learned from the events through 2005. 

So the unfortunate, and sometimes terrible case of Cooper Health has become one of the longest running examples  - starting in 1978 - of the troubles with leadership and governance of large health care organizations, the bad effects of these problems on health care and the values of health care professionals, the lack of public attention to and discussion of these problems and their effects, and the failure of organizations to address on their own their problems with leadership and governance.

True health care reform, as we have said endlessly, requires governance that is accountable, transparent, true to the organization's mission, and honest, ethical, and without conflicts of interest; and leadership that understands health care, upholds its values, is honest, ethical, and without conflicts of interest, is transparent and open, and is willing to be accountable and subject to appropriate incentives. 



Lewis L. Former official gets jail term for bilking Cooper: John M. Sullivan was sentenced to 55 months - the scheme netted $4 million.  He spent his take lavishly. Philadelphia Inquirer, April 26, 1996.

Graham M. New panel at Cooper plans review: embezzling of $3.8 million by two former top aides and a vendor prompted the study. Philadelphia Inquirer, July 27, 1994.

Lewis L. Ex-hospital executive gets 2 years: he helped steal $4 million from Cooper Hospital - his lawyer said the investigation was going to spread.  Philadelphia Inquirer, November 9, 1996.

Graham M, Turcol T. Inquiry widens into finances at Cooper Hospital: a federal grand jury subpoenaed several officials this month - the inquiry was spurred by testimony from two former Cooper executives indicted for fraud. Philadelphia Inquirer, February 27, 1996.

Lewis L. Woman admits role in bilking Cooper Hospital. Philadelphia Inquirer, September 6, 1996.

Lewis L. Ex-hospital executive admits theft: Robert Schmid Jr. pleaded guilty to embezzling about $50,000 from Cooper Hospital. Philadelphia Inquirer, September 24, 1996.

Lewis L. More charged in theft at hospital: six people have now been indicted in the embezzlement at the Camden facility. Philadelphia Inquirer, December 12, 1996.

Lewis L. Ex-wife of jailed Cooper Hospital official sentenced in scam: Elarba Pagan bought $1,500 shoes with medical center money, her business partner said. Philadelphia Inquirer, July 2, 1998. P. B5.

Lewis L. Business owner pleads: Thomas J. Damadio said he helped Cooper Hospital executives launder stolen money.  Philadelphia Inquirer, January 18, 1997.

The Internal Report...

Anonymous. Cooper forms committee. PR Newswire, July 26, 1994.

Graham M. FBI is probing Cooper Hospital for violation of securities laws. Philadelphia Inquirer, April 3, 1997.  P. A1.

Hollreiser E. Cooper urged to release audit results. Philadelphia Business Journal, May 30, 1997.

Graham M. Hospital gives state its audit: Cooper complied after the state threatened to withhold funding - the report will be kept secret.  Philadelphia Inquirer, May 14, 1997, P. B1.

Graham M. N.J. finds nothing amiss at Cooper: the Attorney General’s office reviewed an internal hospital audit - no criminal wrongdoing was uncovered. Philadelphia Inquirer, July 11, 1997. P. A1.

Graham M, Cusick F. Listing Cooper’s board deals: companies associated with the hospital’s trustees have gotten some of its largest contracts. Philadelphia Inquirer, June 15, 1997. P. A1.

Anonymous. Report says Rabbi failed polygraph on wife’s death. The (Bergen County) Record, September 5, 1996.

Burney M. Rabbi charged in wife’s killing. Associated Press State & Local Wire, September 10, 1998.

Mulvihill G. Judge declares mistrial in case of Rabbi charged with arranging wife’s murder. Associated Press State & Local Wire, November 13, 2001.

Bell T. Rabbi found guilty of murder in wife’s 1994 death. Associated Press State & Local Wire, November 20, 2002.

Mulvihill G. Jury spares life of rabbi in wife’s murder; faces life in prison.  Associated Press State & Local Wire, November 22, 2002.

The Aftermath...

Uhlman M. Cooper talks with Allegheny: the Camden hospital wants a partner, and the Pa. chain plans a further push into South Jersey. Philadelphia Inquirer, May 20, 1997. P. C1.

Gerlin A. Philadelphia hospital raids New Jersey system’s cardiology staff.  Philadelphia Inquirer, September 27, 1997.

Kastor JA. Governance of Teaching Hospitals: Turmoil at Penn and Hopkins. Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins Press, 2004. P. 41.

Goodman H. As Cooper suffers loss, it says care won’t suffer. Philadelphia Inquirer, February 11, 1999.

Rizzo N. Cooper Hospital announces cuts in staff. Associated Press State & Local Wire, March 18, 1999.

Goodman H. Cooper Health system cuts 103 employees: financial problems were cited - about 400 jobs could be lost this year, and uninsured care will be curtailed. Philadelphia Inquirer, March 19, 1999. P. A1.

Anonymous. As losses mount, Cooper Hospital’s debt rating falls. Associated Press State & Local Wire, April 16, 1999.

Goodman H. Cooper’s debt rating tumbles as losses rise: the 1998 figure is twice as bad as estimated - the poor rating means the hospital must pay more to borrow. Philadelphia Inquirer, April 16, 1999. P. B1.

Kent B. In Camden, a hospital finds itself seriously ill: Cooper, the city’s biggest employer, has ‘heavy losses.’  New York Times, May 9, 1999.

Anonymous.  Cooper Hospital announces more cuts in staff.  Associated Press State & Local Wire, May 20, 1999.

Anonymous.  Camden hospital posts $16 million loss: president sees turnaround.  Associated Press State & Local Wire, February 23, 2000.

Kiely E.  Cooper Hospital to forgo charity-care payments - the state will not reimburse the Camden facility for uninsured patients for four months - the reason: the beleaguered hospital received the money from the state in advance last year.  Philadelphia Inquirer, April 11, 2000. P B1.

Anonymous.  Cooper Hospital president quitting.  Philadelphia Business Journal, January 15, 2002.

Anonymous.  Hospital company sues six departing surgeons.  Associated Press State & Local Wire, July 4, 2002.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Times: American boards are exceptional--and not necessarily in a good way

The recent New York Times piece on the behavior of (mainly for-profit, but by extension...) US organizations' boards of directors, goes some way toward explaining the anechoic effect.

The redoubtable Gretchen Morgenson reports on the gulf between company directors' approach to transparency in the United States when compared, say, with a lot of boards in the UK, Holland, and the Scandinavian countries.

The novel idea of taking shareholders' views into account seems to be far more common on the other side of the pond. When it comes to for-profit entities, of course, investors' expectations come into play--you'd think this would be an easier case.

One would think that directors would take their fiduciary responsibilities seriously, and at least listen. In the US, however, there seems to be a systematic process of hiving off the directors in a sort of anechoic chamber. Two-thirds of board members in one survey didn't communicate at all with the outside world. Over half hadn't even had a discussion about their organizational communications policies!

Non-profits--and health care spans both types--don't have investors per se. But they have lots of stake-holders. Health Care Renewal's editor and lead blogger, Dr. Poses, has reported in these pages early and often about the lack of transparency on both sides of this rather artificial divide. It's a bit surprising, then, to hear that accountability is more highly valued in Europe than in these democratic United States.

My own experience with boards has been highly consonant with this insular approach. Directors seem mostly there to prop up management. Rubber stamps are the most important tools. Fat wallets also help. Circling the wagons is the most important skill set. Board members in health care organizations, including those that are not-for-profit, either don't talk about what they see lacking, or, scarier still, it's nicely hidden from them. Probably both. I've heard chairpersons publicly excoriate directors, in front of their peers, for "free-lancing" when they engaged in responsible outside communication.

These boards, and especially their chars, almost invariably defer to management. Non-profits wait until their top management do something not merely execrable but illegal and humiliating before they remove them. Is this laziness or selling-out? Unclear. Maybe both.

If this is the kind of American Exceptionalism our organizations subscribe to, they might want to try being a bit more unexceptional!

Friday, March 27, 2015

Opinion, CIO Magazine: "The medical profession needs to get over its fear of information technology"- their complaints bogus

There comes a time when the pundits defending the status quo in the healthcare information technology sector and health IT utopianism simply need to be thoroughly and definitively refuted.

This is such a time.  CIO magazine reaches the country's information technology leadership, including those in heathcare.   Hence, canards and meritless defamation of physicians can (and in my experience does) impact the attitudes and decisions of the leaders of the very technology physicians are increasingly dependent upon to deliver safe care.

Ultimately, such misinformation can and does result in patient harm through bad health IT.

Let's start with the title and subtitle alone of an opinion piece in CIO magazine:

March 26, 2015 
Paddy Padmanabhan - Opinion 

The medical profession needs to get over its fear of information technology
Continued objections to Electronic Health Records ( EHR) by sections of the physician community are bogus. They arise from past entitlements and a lack of accountability.

The term "bogus" has clear meaning:

Merriam-Webster dictionary
:  not genuine :  counterfeit, sham

This is a laughable yet alarming, cavalier defamation and attempted character assassination of the medical profession.

Mr. Padmanabhan is described as a business leader & entrepreneur with over 25 years of experience in Technology and Analytics in the Healthcare sector as well as being a consultant in that domain.  I can openly aver that, with an apparent significant bias as seen below towards the medical profession, I would not want him involved in any way in my own care...

There is nothing "bogus" about, for instance,

The author risibly dismisses them all with the word "bogus."  It might be opined that he was too indolent to conduct research, but I'll just opine he doesn't know what he doesn't know and that the opinion piece was based on simple ignorant arrogance.

I am uncertain what "entitlements" he refers to, but using paper records was not a physician "entitlement" - in fact, they are still used when the lousy hospital IT decides to go on vacation as it recently did, for example, at Children's Hospital Boston ("Boston Children’s emerges from electronic records shutdown", Boston Globe, March 25, 2015, 

(Of course, patient safety was not compromised - it never is when the IT goes out - right.  See the many posts at the query link

Further, the true "lack of accountability" lies with the healthcare IT industry itself and the hospital leadership who agree to their terms of contractual indemnification (Health care information technology vendors' "hold harmless" clause: implications for patients and clinicians. Koppel & Kreda, JAMA. 2009 Mar 25;301(12):1276-8. doi: 10.1001/jama.2009.398,

Also see my commentary in a JAMA letter to the editor of July 2009 at emphasizing how these arrangements violate Joint Commission safety standards, and my posting my health IT academic site at

And that was just responding to the title and subtitle.  Now to the body of the piece:

... In a recent article in a national publication, a member of our physician community raked up a debate by declaring the Electronic Health Records (EHR ) mandate to be a debacle and argued that EHR’s actually harm patientsThese are bogus objections.

Congratulations for disrespecting my mother's grave, Mr. Padmanabhan (  and that of many other people harmed by Information Technology Malpractice as for example in the above links

Also see "The Malpractice Risk of Electronic Health Records", Legal Intelligencer - a Pennsylvania Legal newspaper, March 17, 2015,

Thanks for being an expert on the issues you so glibly dismiss, Mr. Padmanabhan.  I guess you forgot to check out the AHRQ hazards taxonomy ( and similar resources on health IT risk:

A "bogus" checklist of known EHR risks from the U.S. government.  Click to enlarge.

Back to the opinion piece:

... According to a Rand Corporation study, the three key objections against the implementation of EHR’s:

--It costs too much to implement an EHR system: Yes, it costs money to implement any new software. Given a choice, physicians would prefer not to use email or even the telephone because all of these things cost money and have no direct relation to the treatment of patients. What these same physicians also fail to mention is that large hospital systems have been extending significant subsidies to small physician practices in order to help them address the costs.

"Given a choice, physicians would prefer not to use email or even the telephone because all of these things cost money and have no direct relation to the treatment of patients." (?)


This is an example of a profound anti-physician bias, although one could argue that the term mentioned by Yves Smith on Naked Capitalism, "lunatic triumphalism", comes into play with that statement.

What these same physicians also fail to mention is that large hospital systems have been extending significant subsidies to small physician practices in order to help them address the costs.

And just what % of the total costs of ownership are covered, Mr. Padmanabhan?   The financial analyses I see show significant clinician unreimbursed expense for the office.

Inpatient settings - that's another matter entirely - we're talking hundreds of millions of dollars or more per organization.

Perhaps my math is wrong, but hundreds of millions of dollars hospitals dish out on corporate health IT can pay for entire new hospitals, or pay for the medical care of countless disadvantaged people.  (e.g.,, as well as and

--It takes time away from patient care: Physicians love to talk about how much they care about being with their patients. However, they also routinely overbook their schedules with the sole intention of increasing patient visits and claiming additional reimbursement.

That's a very serious and, to my knowledge, completely unfounded accusation.  Many physicians are burned out from being compelled to see too many patients by administrators, especially if they are employed which is becoming very common. You in my opinion need to be taught how not to hate physicians and other clinicians, Mr. Padmanabhan:

Physician Burnout: It Just Keeps Getting Worse
Medscape, Jan, 26, 2015

A national survey published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012 reported that US physicians suffer more burnout than other American workers.[1] This year, in the Medscape Physician Lifestyle Report, 46% of all physicians responded that they had burnout, which is a substantial increase since the Medscape 2013 Lifestyle Report, in which burnout was reported in slightly under 40% of respondents. Burnout is commonly defined as loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment

Back to the opinion piece:

EHR’s can actually aid their productivity by reducing the time it takes to pull up medical history, so that they have more time to spend on actually talking to their patients.

An expert with far more experience than you, Mr. Padmanabhan, says you are flat wrong (not counting me).  His name is Dr. Clement McDonald, and he is an EHR pioneer ("The Tragedy Of Electronic Medical Records",

... McDonald now has a nationally influential post to promote electronic medical records, as the director of the Lister Hill Center for Biomedical Communications, a part of the National Library of Medicine, which is one of the National Institutes of Health.

During his talk, McDonald released his latest research survey, which found that electronic medical records “steal” 48 minutes per day in free time from primary care physicians.

Back to the opinion of Mr P.:

--EHR systems are hard to use and are not secure: There may be some merit to this. No one is making claims that EHR systems are perfect.

"May be some merit?"


There is perhaps merit to saying Mr. Padmanabhan is either ill-informed, or delivering deliberate misinformation  (e.g., "NIST on the EHR Mission Hostile User Experience",, and multiple posts on breach issues retrievable via query link

However, there are a few key aspects that these physicians prefer to not acknowledge when making these arguments:

--Shared electronic medical records can reduce expenses: Physicians routinely bill for duplicate medical expenses, such as tests, that would be avoided if the test results can simply be pulled up electronically. This should logically reduce healthcare costs at a system level.

Great in theory, but the real world is just not that simple.  Mr. Padmanabhan like many other IT hyper-enthusiasts apparently see IT as a silver bullet.  Just put it in and .... presto!  All complex multi-factorial social problems are solved, with no ill effects. Perhaps he and other hyper-enthusiastic health IT pundits need to read this article:

Pessimism, Computer Failure, and Information Systems Development in the Public Sector.  (Public Administration Review 67;5:917-929, Sept/Oct. 2007, Shaun Goldfinch, University of Otago, New Zealand).  Cautionary article on IT that should be read by every healthcare executive documenting the widespread nature of IT difficulties and failure, the lack of attention to the issues responsible, and recommending much more critical attitudes towards IT.  link to pdf

And this:

"Doctors and EHRs: Reframing the "Modernists v. Luddites" Canard to The Accurate "Ardent Technophiles vs. Pragmatists" Reality",

More opinion:

--Quality of treatment can improve significantly: When a complete medical record is available about a patient, including details of visits to multiple healthcare professionals, the quality of diagnosis and hence treatment decisions should improve greatly. This improves patient safety and reduces medical errors, since everyone has access to the same set of data.

 That may be the only accurate statement in the opinion piece.  Yet, even this is not proven in the real world, and with today's highly experimental health IT.

--EHR’s can enable preventive diagnosis and early intervention that reduces costs and improves patient health: Enter healthcare analytics. Having patient medical records in an electronic system enables this data to be analyzed for preventive and early action, improved disease management, and reduced hospitalizations. The whole notion of population health management rests on this premise and is hard to argue with.

It's actually easy to argue with, as are most grandiose pronouncements about computational alchemy (i.e., in the world of data, turning lead into gold).

Again in theory, yes, but Mr. Padmanabhan is seemingly unaware of issues I raised in my article "The Syndrome of Inappropriate Overconfidence in Computing: An Invasion of Medicine by the Information Technology Industry?" at  The uncontrolled nature of aggregated EHR data, and social factors that skew and bias it, never seem to enter into the minds of the computational alchemists.

The truth is:

  • Physicians, nurses and other clinicians are rightfully afraid of having bad health IT forced upon them due to the constraints of their time, their concentration, and their obligations and legal liabilities; 
  • Physicians are rightfully unwilling to be the experimental subjects of IT hyper-enthusiasts who are so hooked on theory, they ignore the actual downsides of an immature, experimental technology in the real world, including patient injury and death; and

I note that I feel dirtied even having to write this post.

-- SS

Addendum 3/27/15:  

A colleague observed:

.. And I suppose all those current med students and residents who grew up with information technology and have known nothing but  EHR’s are “afraid” of information technology?  I’m hearing complaints from the younger generation about the problems with using them. 

-- SS

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Two New Independent Reports on the Death of Dan Markingson, But Now What Will Happen?

Years after his death, there is now a little more clarity about the clinical trial in which Dan Markingson was enrolled when he died.  Whether this clarity will have any impact remains to be seen.

We most recently posted about the aftermath of Mr Markingson's death here, (and see posts in 2013 here, and in 2011 here.)  Very briefly, Mr Markingson was an acutely psychotic patient enrolled in a drug trial sponsored by Astra Zeneca at the University of Minnesota.  His enrollment was said to be voluntary although at the time he enrolled he had been under a stayed order that could have involuntarily committed him to care.  Despite his mother's ongoing and vocal concerns that he was not doing well on the study drug and under the care of trial investigators, he continued in the trial until he died violently by his own hand.  After his death, his mother Mary Weiss, friend Mike Howard, and University of Minnesota bioethics professor Carl Elliott campaigned for a fair review of what actually happened.  University managers not only rebuffed their concerns, but harshly criticized Professor Elliott, and ended up reprimanding him for "unprofessional conduct."

Two New Reports

In the last few weeks, two new independent reports on the case appeared.  Both vindicated the concerns and questions raised by Mary Weiss, Mike Howard, and Prof Elliott.

Association for Accreditation of Human Research Protection

One, called for by the University of Minnesota faculty senate, was by the Association for Accreditation of Human Research Protection,  and said that the university left research subjects "susceptible to risks that otherwise would be avoidable" (see this Minneapolis Star-Tribune article.)  Furthermore, according to a post in the Science Insider blog from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, it said,

[T]he external review team believes the University has not taken an appropriately aggressive and informed approach to protecting subjects and regaining lost trust,

Also, it said the university has been

assuming a defensive posture. In other words, in the context of nearly continuous negative attention, the University has not persuaded its critics (from within and outside the University) that it is interested in more than protecting its reputation and that it is instead open to feedback, able to acknowledge its errors, and will take responsibility for deficiencies and their consequences.

Finally, it noted a "climate of fear" in the Department of Psychiatry.

Office of the Legislative Auditor for the State of Minnesota

The second report, available in full here,was from the Office of the Legislative Auditor for Minnesota.  If anything, it was more damning. Its summary included,

the Markingson case raises serious ethical issues and numerous conflicts of interest, which University leaders have been consistently unwilling to acknowledge. They have repeatedly claimed that clinical research at the University meets the highest ethical standards and dismissed the need for further consideration of the Markingson case by making misleading statements about past reviews. This insular and inaccurate response has seriously harmed the University of Minnesota’s credibility and reputation.

It seemed to affirm in detail nearly all of Weiss', Howard's and Elliott's concerns.  It recommended that the University should suspend new psychiatric drug trials until the problems it identified were remedied (see Star-Tribune article here.)

Vindication, but Will It Lead to Progress?  

Taken together, these reports vindicate the work of Mr Markingson's mother, friend, and academic watchdog Professor Elliott and their supporters.  As the Star-Tribune reported,

'Over the past eleven years the University of Minnesota has made us feel as if we have no voice, no rights and absolutely nothing remotely called justice,' wrote Mike Howard, a close friend to Markingson’s mother, in a letter in the audit. 'This report is the first step toward accountability.'

The Minnesota Post added the response of Professor Elliott and a colleague,

'It’s nice to have an independent confirmation of what we’ve been telling the university for five years, but which they have refused to listen to,' he told MinnPost on Thursday.

Elliott said he is not convinced, however, that Kaler and other university leaders are going to take responsibility for what happened in the Markingson case — or take the necessary steps to fix the problem going forward.

'One of the most worrying findings in the report was the widespread belief on campus that the university leadership doesn’t care about human study subjects,' he said.

Leigh Turner, another U bioethicist who has also been outspoken about the issues raised by the Markingson case, expressed similar concerns. 'Can we expect reform from the very people who have done nothing for the past several years?' he said in a phone interview.

'I hope there’s some change,' he added. 'But the fact that [Markingson died in 2004] and it’s now 2015, I think hope has to be tempered with a dose of realism. There are some very powerful forces interested in minimizing the findings and suggesting that there are only minor things that need to be done.'

It appears there a several major remaining questions.

What Were the Underlying Causes?

Although both reports went into some detail about what happened to Mr Markingson, they seemed not to dwell on why it happened.  They did not seem to address relevant contextual factors, policies, and decisions.  For example, the report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor included,

We understand that the University of Minnesota has been and should continue to be an institution that delivers not only high quality medical care but also engages in cutting edge medical research— research that does pose risks to human subjects. In addition, we do not question the appropriateness of the University obtaining money from pharmaceutical and other medical companies to support that research. However, in every medical research study—whether supported with public or private money—the University must always make the protection of human subjects its paramount responsibility.

However, as we and many others more erudite have discussed frequently, clinical research that evaluates products or services made by the commercial sponsors of the research has proven to be highly susceptible to manipulation by these sponsors to increase the likelihood that the results will serve marketing purposes, and suppression if the manipulation fails to produce the wanted results.  Commercial sponsors often strongly influence the design, implementation, analysis and dissemination of clinical research.  Often their influence is mediated by financial relationships with individual researchers and with academic institutions who seem more and more beholden to outside sponsors, that is, by conflicts of interest.  The report by the Auditor noted pressures, including financial pressures on the physician who ran the study in which Mr Markingson was a subject to enroll more patients and keep them enrolled.  To protect patients better in the future, in my humble opinion the relationships among commercial sponsors, academic medical institutions, and individual researchers need further consideration.  Is the easy money supporting research coming from commercial firms with vested interests in the outcome of that research really worth the risks of biased results, hidden results, and to research subjects?   

Will Anything Change and Will Anyone be Held Accountable?

Once these two reports were delivered, it now seems to be up to university managers to make needed changes.  In general, these are the same managers who are described above as so "defensive," who not only ignored complaints, but appeared to try to silence those who complained.  If they are left in charge, why should we expect them to make any meaningful changes?  Instead, should they  not be held accountable for their actions?  

Will the University Cease Hostilities Against Dr Elliott?

Again, as noted above, university managers did not merely disagree with Professor Elliott.  They disparaged him, appeared to try to intimidate him, and reprimanded him.  It seems at the very least he is owed an apology.  So far, nothing in the news coverage suggests he has or will receive one.

Will Anyone Notice? 

So far, this case has gotten good coverage in Minnesota media.  However, it has largely been ignored in the national media.  Beyond Minnesota, I could only find mention in some blogs, e.g., in PharmaLot by Ed Silverman, and in Forbes by Judy Stone.  I have seen nothing in any US medical or health care journal, although the British Medical Journal did cover it in a news feature.  This case clearly has global implications, and ought to be considered one of the most important cases illustrating the perils of commercially sponsored human research, but it remains proportionately anechoic.


The latest reports seem only to confirm that clinical research at major academic institutions has gone way off track.  It now seems that in their haste to bring in external funding, university administrators and the academic researchers who are beholden to them have sadly neglected the protection of their own patients.  As we have said ad infinitum, true health care reform would turn leadership of health care organizations over the people who understand and are willing to uphold the mission of health care, and particularly willing to put patients' and the public's health, and the integrity of medical education and research when applicable, ahead of the leaders' personal interests and financial gain.

ADDENDUM (25 March, 2015) - See also numerous posts by Professor Elliott on the Fear and Loathing in Bioethics blog,  by Bill Gleason in the Periodic Table blog,  and by Mickey Nardo on the 1BoringOldMan blog

ADDENDUM (30 March, 2015) - Note that after receiving offline comments, I changed the first paragraph to emphasize the clarity is about the trial, rather than the patient's death, and second paragraph to clarify that the order to commit was stayed.