Senate opens hospital probe

Federal lawmakers ask St. Joseph Medical Center to turn over three years of billing records and other documents related to cardiac care, saying they are troubled by reports of unnecessary coronary stents implanted at the Towson hospital and want to investigate for signs of Medicare fraud. Montana Sen. Max Baucus and Iowa Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the top Democrat and senior Republican, respectively, on the Senate Finance Committee, also ask the hospital for records of its financial relationship with manufacturers of the medical devices. They set a March 12 deadline, saying their committee was launching an inquiry as part of its role "to protect taxpayer dollars from waste, fraud and abuse.""In addition to putting patients' lives at risk, unnecessary medical procedures amount to wasteful spending of precious federal health care dollars," the senators wrote in a letter to the hospital, which was sent to CEO Jeffrey K. Norman this week and shared with The Baltimore Sun. St. Joseph officials pledged to cooperate, calling the committee's interest understandable, given the hospital's disclosure that hundreds of patients received expensive and potentially dangerous procedures that they might not have needed. "Transparency and cooperation are in the best interest of the hospital's patients, physicians, employees and community," they said in a statement. The Senate probe was the latest development in an unfolding saga at St. Joseph that has already seen the departure of its top executives, denial of medical privileges to a marquee physician, a drop in the hospital's lucrative cardiac-care practice and a federal fine expected to exceed $5 million. For more than eight years, the hospital's dominant cardiology practice, MidAtlantic Cardiovascular Associates, has fought lawsuits and allegations of inappropriate collusion in the process of referring cardiac patients to St. Joseph and other suburban hospitals. In 2008, St. Joseph hired Dr. Mark Midei (pictured), a prominent interventional cardiologist, away from Mid-Atlantic, scuttling a deal the practice had struck to merge with MedStar Health, a competitor of St. Joseph's. Months later, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services began a fraud investigation that centered on St. Joseph's relationship with MidAtlantic, and three top hospital executives were placed on leave and later resigned. St. Joseph reached a settlement with the federal government in July. Its details, including the amount of financial penalties, are expected to be disclosed soon; court records suggest that the fine will exceed $5 million. Last summer, the hospital began reviewing records of cardiology patients, and in December 2009 it began sending letters to Midei's patients, saying their coronary stent implants might not have been needed.
Baltimore Sun photo by John Makely
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