Lisa Zenzen Baker, 1961-2003


Sunday, August 28, 2011

Ending the silence

Web page to be
widely promoted

By David Baker
Posted Sunday, Aug. 28 2011

The audience for this page has until now been small, with most of the area’s population unaware of it.

But that is about to change.

In the coming weeks, an aggressive plan that will bring the page to people across the Capital Region will begin.

This will be the beginning of the end of a conspiracy that for more than a decade has allowed medical providers, lawyers and the media to profit from errors and negligence that have killed and injured dozens of people.

This conspiracy has meant that:

* The providers have been able to keep their mistakes out of public view and thus have had less incentive to stop them from happening;

* Providers have been able to fight most lawsuits, even when they know they are liable for a death or injury, without any bad publicity;

* Lawyers on both sides have greatly increased their income as they allow cases to drag on for years, with none of the news stories that would damage a provider’s public image;

* Claims, when they eventually are settled, cost the public most far more then they would if liability had been acknowledged immediately, as both the settlement amounts and all the inflated legal costs are paid by insurance carriers, resulting in higher liability insurance premiums for the providers – which are then passed on to the public either directly in providers’ bills or as high health insurance premiums or taxes.

* The news media, without which none of this could be happening, have, for more than a decade, received a steady stream of advertising revenue from providers who are buying their silence.

And while all the participants in this alliance have benefited, dozens of people have died or received an injury that was totally preventable; a situation that will continue as long as providers put far more effort into hiding their mistakes and avoiding responsibility than they do stopping all these tragedies from happening.

This has to change.

In the past month, both the hospitals and the area’s largest newspaper have been presented in writing with an opportunity to abandon their alliance and start acting in the public interest; the hospitals by immediately acknowledging errors and where appropriate, offering compensation, and the newspaper by reporting the few lawsuits that will still be filed against the providers.

There was has been no response.

Therefore, a project will start soon to bring this page to the attention of most of the Capital Region.

Hospitals in other parts of the country have seen significant declines in lawsuits after they began acknowledging errors promptly. But here in the Capital District, those benefiting from their alliance are unwilling to give it up.

That’s why, very soon, they will be forced to do it.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Paid admission

Working against the public
interest seems to be normal
at Capital District hospitals

By David Baker
Posted Sunday, Aug. 21 2011

Nine million dollars. That’s how much the operators of five hospitals in the Capital District will pay under the terms of a settlement reached earlier this year of a class-action lawsuit in which they were accused of conspiring to keep nurses’ pay low.

According to the suit, the hospitals operated an ‘information exchange,’ where they would regularly telephone each other with news about pay rates. As a result, the hourly pay at each hospital for the same training and qualifications varied by less than a dollar.

The hospitals and the amount they agreed to pay are: Northeast Health, $1.25 million; St. Mary’s Hospital in Troy, $744,000; St. Peter’s Hospital, $2.7 million; and Albany Medical Center Hospital, $4.5 million.

Northeast Health – which operates Memorial Hospital in Albany and Samaritan Hospital in Troy – was the first to settle. All four loudly claimed that they have done nothing wrong – even as they agreed to pay millions of dollars to an estimated 4,000 nurses who were employed at the hospitals between 2002 and 2010.

A statement from Northeast Health in 2009 was particularly shrill: “Those allegations were completely false and offensive,” it said. “We never conspired with any other hospital to suppress nurse wages, nor did we violate antitrust laws in any manner.”

This was as Northeast Health agreed to provide documents and depositions in the case that continued against other hospitals, and to pay more than a million dollars to nurses it claimed it hadn’t cheated.

But a survey released this week showed that nurses in the Capital Region had pay rates below the national average. The data, from the U.S. Department of Labor was for May 2010, just after all the Capital District hospitals had agreed to settle.

And it was about this time that all the hospitals except Albany Medical Center were arranging a merger that will bring them all under a single governing board, allowing them to continue to control nurses’ pay rates. But no one, not the state – and certainly not the Times Union – has expressed any concern about that.

The settlement of the nurses’ lawsuit is very visible evidence that there has never being any genuine competition between the area’s hospitals. They just tried to make it look as if there was. Several years back, a posting on this page noted that an examination of their advertising campaigns showed that they appeared to be carefully coordinated so that the hospitals took turns, three or four months at a time, in running heavy advertising messages, thus keeping their own costs down while maintaining a steady stream of revenue to a media that for more than a decade has ignored lawsuits accusing the hospitals of killing and maiming their patients.

And just this week there was another example of the media apparently protecting the hospitals from bad news. On Thursday, a first version of a story about the Labor Department data appearing on the Times Union Web page included two paragraphs about the lawsuit, saying that the hospitals had paid millions to settle it.

But six hours later, it was replaced with another version of the story – with all references to the lawsuit removed. And it was this second version, without the clearly relevant – but to the hospitals, highly negative information – that appeared the next day in the much more widely read print edition.