asilva/FlickrAttorney General Kamala Harris
The chairman of the state Senate Health Committee is asking Attorney General Kamala Harris to take a skeptical look at approving the purchase of Victory Valley Community Hospital by Prime Healthcare Services.
Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, told Harris in a letter that California Watch's coverage of Prime Healthcare, a 14-hospital chain based in San Bernardino County, has raised serious concerns about the acquisition, which is the subject of a public hearing Aug. 17.
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"Monetary cost to the health care system notwithstanding, callous treatment of California seniors at their most vulnerable moments in a hospital emergency facility must not go unaddressed. We ought to be able to trust our hospitals," he wrote.
The most recent California Watch report detailed that after Prime acquired nearly a dozen hospitals in Orange, Los Angeles, San Diego and San Bernardino counties, the rate of elderly patients admitted from the emergency room to hospital beds jumped by 40 percent.
The chain has reaped tens of millions more as a result of admitting more Medicare patients than the state average, rather than treating them on an outpatient basis.
Kaiser Permanente has accused Prime in court of engaging in a “fraudulent and illegal scheme” to “trap” its patients, who arrive at the hospitals in emergencies. Kaiser contends that Prime’s business model is based on “unnecessary hospitalizations … and inflated and fraudulent billing.”
Prime has denied the allegations in court filings.
The attorney general's office commissions reports on the sales of nonprofit hospitals and holds hearings before such sales go forward. The office approves, denies or places conditions on each sale.
The attorney general denied the most recent proposed sale to Prime in 2007 after hearing critical testimony from a state assemblyman, the statewide nurses union and another prospective buyer of Anaheim Memorial Medical Center. The office approved prior sales to the chain.
Hernandez’s letter to Harris also makes reference to the “startling prevalence of septicemia” at Prime hospitals. In October, California Watch reported on a federal investigation set off by a union’s report on high rates of septicemia documented at Prime hospitals.
The analysis showed that Prime hospitals report treating three times more septicemia cases than hospitals nationwide, spurring lawmakers to question whether the union uncovered a major health care problem or a multimillion-dollar fraud.
In his letter, Hernandez refers to a letter he received from regulators who looked into the septicemia cases:
A subsequent California Department of Public Health (CDPH) review of septicemia claims at four Prime hospitals showed signs of fraud: “the documentation in the medical records reviewed often failed to substantiate the diagnoses being utilized,” according to a letter we received from CDPH Director (Ron) Chapman about the Department’s review.
In closing, Hernandez urged Harris to take a thorough look at all options before approving the sale of Victor Valley Community Hospital to Prime:
Californians have the right to expect state agencies to act to protect the integrity of our hospitals. Given the serious nature of these allegations we should do everything in our power to ensure this organization is not allowed to expand until all investigations have concluded and we are provided explanations for the anomalies brought to light by the California Watch reports.
I am aware that many hospitals across the state have been forced to close their doors in recent years and I would consider it a bad result if a suitable purchaser for Victor Valley Community Hospital is not found. Having said that, I write to ask that as you make your determination, you take a serious look at Prime’s record and give strong consideration to any entity attempting to acquire this hospital that is not embroiled in the type of controversy that currently surrounds Prime Healthcare. Let’s work together to restore and maintain trust in our healthcare system.