Lisa Zenzen Baker, 1961-2003


Friday, November 11, 2005

Albany newspaper ignores lawsuits


By David Baker

It seems the only way to find out what happened to Lisa Baker while she was a patient at Samaritan Hospital will be to file a lawsuit against the hospital and the company that operates it, Northeast Health, Inc.

But if a suit is filed, don’t expect to read about it in the Times Union.

That’s because the area’s largest newspaper has not reported on any lawsuit filed against Northeast Health since at least 1999.

Meanwhile, the paper regularly runs large display advertisements for the two hospitals and the group of nursing homes and other health care facilities operated by Northeast Health.

In fact, it’s hard for anyone in the Capital Region not to notice the company’s ads. They’re in newspapers. They’re on the radio. They’re on TV. And in each case, the underlying message is the same: “We care.”

You’ve heard the ‘tag line’ at the end of the radio announcements. “Caring for Generations,” is one. Another says “Caring for you at every stage of your life.”

These feel-good messages obviously cost the non-profit organization a lot of money: In just one issue of the Sunday Times Union, on Sept. 12, there were four of these ads, three of them quarter-page displays.

But a search of the Times Union’s archives going back to 1999 found no indication that the newspaper has reported on even one lawsuit filed against the company in that time.

Asked how many cases had been filed against Samaritan Hospital in Rensselaer County in the past five years, an employee in the state Supreme Court clerk’s office in Troy said: “Oh my goodness, there’s lots of them.”

Some of these cases are now closed. However, a check of the court system’s data base shows there are at least 10 claims currently pending against Northeast Health or facilities it operates.

But an extensive search of the Times Union’s archives, using numerous combinations of likely key words, produced no indication that any of these lawsuits have ever been mentioned in the pages of the newspaper.

A detailed letter describing these findings was sent on Sept. 15 to Times Union publisher David P. White, and to the paper’s editor, Rex Smith, asking for comment. As of December 8
, neither man had responded.

Some of the active cases against the health care provider are relatively minor and would not warrant a news story. But others allege gross negligence or wrongful death.

One of those claims was filed last year on behalf of a 58-year-old woman with a history of a heart condition who went to the emergency room at Memorial Hospital in Albany with symptoms consistent with a heart attack. But according to the suit, the woman was given only a brief examination and sent home.

Less than an hour later, she collapsed. By the time she was rushed back to the hospital she was dead.

But even though her husband is a well-known former public official – a fact that usually adds to a story’s news value – there is no indication the lawsuit was ever reported by the Times Union.

Now perhaps the management of the paper thinks that dangerous medical errors and negligence are not a matter of public interest. Given the alarming number of people reportedly killed and injured each year in health care facilities, most people would probably not agree. And the Times Union’s own editors clearly didn’t think so back in 2002 when they ran all those stories about the tragic death of one of their own reporters.

You probably remember the case. The writer, Mike Hurewitz, died after donating a part of his liver to an ailing brother. The state Health Department later fined Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City a total of $66,000 for a series of failures in its care of the 57-year-old patient.

Again using the Times Union’s own data base, a search found that in the following three months, the newspaper ran at least 30 stories about the Hurewitz case. The paper also ran four editorials, the first of which was published just three days after Hurewitz died, and well before the Health Department had found any failure in the care provide by the hospital.

Still not satisfied, during the next 12 months the paper ran another 20 stories that were about or made a significant reference to the Hurewitz case.

So, let’s see: Mike Hurewitz’s case gets all this attention from the Times Union. But all these other cases, and the larger public issues many of them also raise, are not mentioned. What could be so different about them?

Very little, it seems. Except that Mike Hurewitz died for want of proper medical care in a hospital in New York City that does not run ads in the Times Union. Some of the other people though, including Lisa Zenzen, apparently died or were injured for want of proper medical care in health care facilities in the Capital Region, run by a company that spends a huge amount of money to tell people how caring it is.

And a large part of that money contributes directly to the profits of a newspaper that evidently is willing to simply ignore news that might make a big advertiser look not so caring after all.