Lisa Zenzen Baker, 1961-2003


Friday, June 27, 2008

Insurers big premium hikes

Malpractice insurers raise
premiums while payouts stay low

By David Baker

First published July 13, 2005 and reprinted in response to a renewed campaign by liability insurers for "reform" - i.e, further restrictions on an injured patient's ability to recovery damages.

Over the past five years, premiums paid by doctors and medical facilities for malpractice insurance have more than doubled, as insurance companies blamed big verdicts, and called for limits on awards for pain and suffering, something the Bush Administration has strongly supported.

But now a new study shows that while the amount charged by the nation’s 15 largest malpractice insurers for coverage increased 120 percent between 2000 through 2004, the amount paid out by them during that time went up just 5.7 percent.

Some insurers actually had a decrease in payouts but still increased premiums, according to the study. For example, Healthcare Indemnity Inc. increased its premiums by 88 percent during the five years, while the amount it paid out fell 32 percent.

Another company, Medical Assurance, did even better. It increased its premiums by $151 million, or a whopping 89 percent, while its payouts went down by a third. This meant that in 2004 Medical Assurance paid out just 10 cents in claims for every dollar it collected in premiums.

The study, released by the Center for Democracy and Justice, uses information included in the insurers’ annual reports to state insurance departments.

The study also found that during the past three years, the 15 insurers increased their surpluses – the amount by which money set side for claims exceeded actual payouts – by an average of one third. Two of the companies, Healthcare Indemnity and Norcal, increased their surpluses by more than 50 percent.

The report also notes that the three insurers studied that are traded on the stock exchange all saw their stock prices double between 2001 through 2004, while the Down Jones Industrial Average remained almost unchanged.

A story on the study was distributed by the Associated Press and therefore is available to newspapers around the country and in the Capital Region.

The full study “Falling Claims and Rising Premiums in the Medical Malpractice Industry” was prepared by former Missouri Insurance Commissioner Jay Angoff and was commissioned by the Center for Justice & Democracy (CJ&D). The report was co-released by several national consumer organizations: CJ&D, Alliance for Justice, Consumer Federation of America, Public Citizen, USAction and U.S. PIRG.

It is available as a PDF download at the Center for Democracy and Justice Web site at:

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Bruno's unfinished business

Senate leader's response

less than was hoped for

From the archives

This comment first appeared
here on April 29, 2006

By David Baker

Is Senator Joe Bruno going to join the list of state politicians who won't stand up to the healthcare lobby?


Back at the end of 2005 I contacted the Senate majority leader's office, asking that the senator do what the chairmen of both the Assembly and Senate health committees had refused to do: Take a hard independent lookat the state Health Department's extraordinary conclusion - after a 7-month "investigation - that Samaritan Hospital was in no way responsible for the death of a diabetic patient whose blood sugar had dropped to almost zero while in its care.

The hospital's own records show that Lisa's blood was not checked for four hours prior to when she was found not breathing and with a blood-sugar reading of just 2. And that was immediately after an earlier episode of low blood sugar, which had required an intravenous shot of dextrose. But the Health Department nevertheless found the care 'adequate", and suggested that a drug used to treat high blood pressure was responsible for the fatal plunge in blood sugar, a preposterous idea that is not supported by a shred of evidence anywhere.

My first contact with Bruno's office was at the end of last year, with an attorney in his counsel's office named Karen Crummy. During a long conversation in December, Karen said she had read the postings on this page, and agreed that the Health Department's determination in this case extraordinary and made no sense. She promised to contact the Heath Department and let me know the result.

Months went by. During a couple of follow-up calls I made in February and March Karen said she had been in contact with someone at the Health Department and was waiting for a call back. Then last week - the last week of April - I called again. After a second call this week, my call was returned - but not by Karen.

Now it was Kris Thompson, a former reporter at The Record, and currently a spokesman for Bruno. Thompson - unlike Karen had been- was very guarded, saying that because of the pending litigation, he could not tell me much, only that there would be "a review", which I may or may not learn about at some point.

So will anything actually change? Just the fact that Karen Crummy ducked my call and passed the matter to a spokesman is significant.

It doesn't look good.

This follows the refusal by the chairmen of both the legislative health committees to take action. As reported in postings elsewhere on this page, Republican Senator Kemp Hannon, who is chairman of his chamber's health committee, ignored my letter for almost a year. Then, after my attempts to get his attention were mentioned by Fred Dicker on his "Live From the State Capitol" show on WROW radio, Hannon told Dicker that I had been rude to a member of his staff and had refused to leave a phone number. (The number was on both my letters to him.) He then dropped the matter and I've never heard any more from him.

Meanwhile, Democratic Assemblyman Richard Gottfried also ignored my January 2005 letter. Six months later he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Post in which he said that "thousands of New Yorkers" were dying because the Health Department was too lax in disciplining doctors. Then, after his non-response was also mentioned by Dicker, Gottfried finally wrote to Health Commissioner Antonio Novello. When her office eventually replied with a brief letter repeating its conclusion that that hospital had met the "standard of care" in its treatment of Lisa, Gottfried said, in effect, "OK, fine," ignoring the fact that if such treatment is OK under the law, then clearly there is something terribly lacking in the law.

Law that, Gottfried, with his seniority and health committee chairmanship, could change.

Bu that would assume that he and all the rest of them were actually acting in the interest of the public, instead for the special interests that have taken over and rotted out the governments at all levels in this country.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

A profile in courage

Assemblyman just talks
the talk while patients die

By David Baker
First published April 8, 2005

A letter has finally been received from Assemblyman Richard Gottfried with a response to his request to the state health commissioner for a review of the care Lisa received at Samaritan Hospital prior to her unexpected death.
And what a disappointment it is.

What Gottfried was asked to do - as chair of the Assembly’s Health Committee - was to examine the facts of the case and determine if the Health Department’s conclusion that no rules were broken was appropriate and in the best interests of the people of this state.

What was received - a year after the first letter to Gottfried - is a copy of a letter to him from Commissioner Antonio Novello that states that the department’s investigation “did not identify any violations of the state hospital code or accepted standards of medical practice,” during Lisa’s treatment. 

Checking and maintaining blood glucose levels is basic care for an insulin-dependent diabetic. Samaritan Hospital’s own records show that it failed to do that. Lisa died as a direct result of her blood glucose level falling to near zero

But the hospital is in no way responsible for her death. Why? Because, according to the state’s health commissioner, this basic but essential care is not required by the state of New York.

In his four-sentence cover letter, Gottfried says “I realize you may not find the enclosed correspondence satisfactory.” That’s it. All he did - very reluctantly and only after being publicly embarrassed on “Live From the State Capitol with Fred Dicker” on WROW - was write to Novello.

And now, as far as he is concerned, the matter is closed.

This from the man who had an op-ed piece published last year in the New York Post in which he criticized the Health Department for going too easy on medical providers. “Studies show that thousands of New Yorkers die in hospitals from medical errors,” Gottfried wrote in the piece. “Well over a dozen states have physician-discipline rates higher than New York’s. It’s likely a sign that the Health Department is not doing the aggressive job it should to protect our lives and health.”
Well, evidently it's actually the Legislature that “is not doing the aggressive job it should to protect our lives and health.”

And with people like Richard Gottfried as its members, it’s not likely that anything will change. Those “thousands of New Yorkers” can just going on dying as far as Assemblyman Gottfried is concerned.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Acknowledging errors

Sorry Works!: An update from
the place where it started

The Lexington (Kentucky) Herald Leader has a story about the hospital that found disclosure of medial errors is the best policy.

Read it here


Only hospital deaths concealed

Money-driven “conspiracy”
allows thousands to die

From the archives
This article first appeared
here on July 30, 2006

By David Baker

A 14-year-old resident of a group home drowns while on a swimming outing. Several weeks later, a report on an official investigation is released and a story appears in the media.

A paralyzed man drowns in a tub in the residence for the disabled where he lives, and at least three agencies launch investigations. One of them releases a report within days. It, and the progress of other investigations are widely reported in newspapers.

A prisoner awaiting sentence for killing her boyfriend dies after collapsing in her cell. Allegations of mistreatment of her by jail staff generate numerous stories and a newspaper editorial in the first week, and another story when the results of one of at lease three official investigations is released.

But a patient dies in a hospital under circumstances that raise many questions about the care she was given in the hours before she received catastrophic injuries, and even one of the most powerful politicians in the state can’t – or, more likely, won’t – make the detailed findings of the only official investigation available to the family.

Why would this be? Why are so many people who could stop it so willing to look the other way when it comes to the deaths of people in the care of a facility that is supposed to heal and “do no harm.”

The answer, of course, is money.

Money for politicians, who have kept laws that regulate hospitals weak and penalties low.

And money, in the form of advertising revenue, for the media, so that the public is kept unaware of allegations of medical malpractice, thus allowing doctors and hospitals to create a totally false image of safety and competence.

The truth is that a hospital is a very dangerous place. Even using the most conservative estimates, more people die needlessly in medical institutions than on the roads. The numbers are staggering: At least 120 preventable deaths a day in hospitals in the U.S., 18 of them each day in New York.

That’s five deaths as hour nationwide; one every 80 minutes in New York.

But this carnage goes on, day after day, year after year, and despite the talk about improving patient safety, those terrible numbers have stayed almost the same since a study from the Institutes of Health reported those numbers in 2000.

It doesn’t to be that way.

If the law made a failure to provide even basic care a violation, and provided penalties that were more than a joke, hospitals would have to change their ways. Nurse/patient ratios that were reduced so that a hospital could save money – as happened when Northeast Health cut a total of 225 positions to save $10 million soon after it acquired Samaritan and Albany Memorial Hospital in 1997 – would have to be restored.

And if newspapers were reporting the more serious allegations made in lawsuits – as they routinely did until the late 1990s, there would be only one way to stop the bad news; reduce the errors that led to the deaths and injuries, and when mistakes did occur, immediately and fully acknowledge them to the patient or the patient’s family.

But while politicians and newspaper editors remain so willing to sell their integrity for a hospital’s dollars, the huge financial and emotional cost will continue.

It's a disturbing thought: Hospitals, politicians and the media. Partners in so much suffering for profit.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Case ends with no trial

Follow up: Misplaced
sponge lawsuit is over

Posted on Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Back on May 4 this page carried an item about a lawsuit in which Melanie Kiefer of Ulster County was claiming that a surgical sponge was left in her body during surgery. The lawsuit named Dr. John Malfetano and Memorial Hospital in Albany. In a comment accompanying the piece it was noted that such allegations are generally considered indefensible, but that the defendants’ insurance company was nevertheless fighting the claim all the way to the courtroom, and that the trial was set to begin on Monday of this week.

The piece then said the following:

“Maybe it will be tried. But the chances are that after doing everything possible to run up the plaintiffs’ attorneys expenses and the Kiefers’ stress, the insurance carrier will settle just before details of the case would be presented in open court, where a jury could make a big award that might be reported in the media.”

The lawsuit did not go to trial. Today, the Web page of the Unified Court System reports that the case has been “disposed.’

It could not immediately be determined if there was a settlement. Further information will appear here as it is obtained.

From the archives

Two years and still no answers

The following item first appeared
appeared here in November 2005.

By David Baker

It was during this month in 2003 that Lisa put her life into the hands of the nurses and doctors at Troy’s Samaritan Hospital.

And came out dead.

Now, two years later, I am still looking for an explanation of what happened in room 4018 on the night of Nov. 11, 2003.

I am still looking for answers for Lisa.

Not that anyone else wants to know.

Not the state Health Department. The agency took seven months to come out with what can only be called a whitewash, ignoring any fact that would stand in the way of its conclusion that the hospital was not responsible for the consequences of allowing an insulin-dependent diabetic’s blood sugar to drop to almost zero.

Not state Assemblyman Richard Gottfried. Gottfried could – and should – have the Assembly Health Committee he controls examine this and other determinations. Instead he writes a puff piece for the New York Post about how the department is not going after bad doctors, while ignoring a request to ask some hard questions about Lisa’s case.

Not the press. “Watchdog journalism” may be what the management of the Times Union is boasting about now, but for the past eight years the paper has routinely suppressed stories about lawsuits alleging malpractice at medical institutions in the Capital Region, while accepting perhaps millions of dollars in advertising revenue from those same institutions. Just how much of that money came from Northeast Health Inc. – the parent company of Samaritan Hospital – is information I can and will demand in the pending lawsuit filed on Lisa’s behalf.

And of course, not the hospital itself, which is allowing its insurance carrier to spend some of the immense wealth it has accumulated from inflated premiums to do everything it can to obstruct and delay what the law is supposed to do:

Reveal the truth.

So an estimated 98,000 people die each year in this country as a result of preventable medical errors.

That’s a terrible tragedy that calls out for action.

But money talks even louder. And a lot of people are listening.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Never events mean no payment

Medical errors: Medicaid
cracks down in New York

Friday, June 6, 2008
As has been reported here, the federal Medicare program is to deny payment to medical providers for treatment that results from a series of "never events." The state Health Department has issued a press release which can be found here


Sunday, June 01, 2008

Hospital obstructs the facts

Legal battle stretches on as
lawyers withhold information

By David Baker
Posted Sunday, June 1, 2008

One of the claims made by Samaritan Hospital in the lawsuit over Lisa’s death is that finger stick meters such as the one that showed her blood glucose at a mere 2 mg/dL are inaccurate at low readings. Her real glucose level when she was found in her hospital bed not breathing and with no pulse, was a normal and safe 80 mg/dL.

That’s according to Dr. Matthew Leinung of Albany Medical Center Hospital. Leinung was likely paid a significant sum for this and other opinions – more than four years after Lisa’s death – as Samaritan Hospital tries to avoid any responsibility for her care.

So at the end of April I filed a legal document demanding that the hospital tell me the make and model of all glucose meters available to its staff at the time Lisa was a patient.

That information is necessary to challenge the claims made by Leinung in his affidavit. The doctor’s sworn statement is part of an attempt by the hospital to have the entire case thrown out of court.

The hospital’s lawyers had a specific amount of time to reply to the demand. That time has expired with no response.

So with less than three weeks until my response to Samaritan’s motion is due, the hospital is doing everything it can to obstruct my response to its motion.

Some judges would not tolerate this conduct. But as has been noted previously on this page, Judge Stephen Ferradino has shown a remarkable sympathy for the defendants in this case, most recently giving them far more time than they had asked for to respond to my motion for summary judgment, despite my objections to even the extension they had requested.

This happened at a conference with the judge that ostensibly was to consider the defendants' request for a delay - even though by then the judge's staff had already told them one had been granted - but was really, I believe, a carefully staged event designed to intimidate me into accepting a tiny amount to settle the case.

So the next step is yet another written motion – again something most judges strongly discourage – asking Ferradino to compel the hospital to respond to my demand for the information on the glucose meters.

All of which leads to this disturbing thought:

There are two groups of people who routinely kill and maim, and who then employ an army of lawyers and buy influence with politicians and business owners to obstruct and defeat any attempt to hold them accountable.

One of those groups is organized crime. The mob. The Mafioso.

The other is the medical profession.