Maryland lawmakers say they’re concerned and closely monitoring the University of Maryland Medical System’s behavior after the state’s top legislative auditor said the hospital network was “hindering” his work.
Some legislative leaders, including the sponsors of sweeping reform legislation passed this year after a self-dealing scandal at UMMS, say more bills could be needed if the hospital network refuses to comply with the state audit.
“I think it’s egregious given the history of the prior board and what gave rise to the legislation to begin with,” said Sen. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat who was lead sponsor of the Senate version of the reform measure. “It’s an insult to the legislature and the general public. To be honest, we could have gone more stringent with the legislation than we did. If they’re going to be noncompliant, we may have to revisit this issue this session.”
Maryland Legislative Auditor Gregory Hook told legislative leaders in an Oct. 31 letter that the medical system had “delayed and hindered our work by repeatedly failing to make employees available and failing to provide requested information on a timely basis.”
He also wrote that his office still had “a significant amount of work that needs to be done prior to issuing a formal report, including finalizing the work papers, developing specific findings, developing the report format, writing the report, meeting with the Corporation to discuss the findings, and subjecting the project to the Office’s extensive internal quality assurance process.”
Del. Nic Kipke, an Anne Arundel Republican who shepherded the reform bill in the House of Delegates after the hospitalization of late House Speaker Michael Busch, said he was “very disappointed to learn that UMMS wasn’t an eager ‘open book’ with the auditors." Busch was lead sponsor of the bill in the House of Delegates before his death last spring.
But, Kipke said, he believes UMMS officials have been more cooperative after they “were made to understand that there is an expectation of cooperation” by key aides to the state’s top legislators last month.
Kipke said “all options are on the table” for how legislators will respond to the findings of the audit once they come out.
“The legislature has made it very clear that we are disappointed with the system,” Kipke said. “While they seem to be moving in the right direction, it is imperative that any corporate governance changes that are needed to prevent this type of corruption are implemented — either on their own or through legislative mandate."
In response to the auditor’s letter, University of Maryland Medical System chief of staff Kristin Jones Bryce said she respects the legislators’ opinions, but disputes claims of hindering an audit. She said the network has been “cooperative and transparent.”
“While there have been routine discussions about scope and protocol, UMMS has provided thousands of documents, location and contact information for every employee auditors asked to communicate with across our 13-hospital system, dedicated personnel to help expedite the process, and multiple offices from which the auditors could perform their work," she said. "For that reason, the allegations made in the [auditor’s] letter are both surprising and disappointing.”
The system declined to make available for this article its incoming president and CEO, Mohan Suntha, who takes over Dec. 1, or its new board chair, James C. “Chip” DiPaula Jr.
Lawmakers required the Office of Legislative Audits to investigate after The Baltimore Sun revealed beginning in March that a third of UMMS’ 30-member board had lucrative contracts with the medical system that they were charged with overseeing.
Among other deals, UMMS paid then-board member and Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh $500,000 for 100,000 copies of her “Healthy Holly” children’s books — a deal that featured prominently in Pugh’s plea deal last week to federal charges of conspiracy and wire fraud.
The Sun’s revelations, and Pugh’s political fall, were accompanied by a massive shake-up of UMMS leadership, with CEO Robert Chrencik and several other top executives stepping down. In the same emergency legislation that required the forensic audit, lawmakers required Republican Gov. Larry Hogan to replace the entire UMMS board by year’s end. They made the audit due Dec. 15.
When The Sun inquired about the status of the audit last week, Hook declined to comment but provided copies of an Oct. 31 letter he wrote to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Adrienne A. Jones, both Democrats, asking for an extension of time to finish the work, and their response granting an extension until March 13.
UMMS interim President and CEO John Ashworth, in response, said UMMS officials have “always endeavored to work collaboratively and transparently” with the auditors, and “look forward to the issuance of their report.”
Kipke said he understands the “audit will certainly expose more problems.”
"I’m very interested in finding out what other corruption might be there,” he said. “Ultimately the main concern is making sure that this system is held to the highest standards possible.”
Del. Shane Pendergrass, a Howard County Democrat who chairs the Health and Government Operations Committee, which heard the UMMS reform legislation, said she’s monitoring the situation.
“My feeling is that UMMS has been under stress because of the changes,” Pendergrass said. “I don’t know if they’re not complying because they’re trying to be uncooperative or because they’re digging themselves out of a big problem. There have been some conversations and, going forward, my feeling is there will be progress. Hopefully we’re going to see, over time, that things are moving in the right direction. The legislature will be looking at it again this session. We’ll keep monitoring it.”
Del. Terri L. Hill, a Howard County Democrat who sits on the Health and Government Operations Committee, said she was surprised the hospital network wasn’t being more responsive to auditors, given that system officials had already submitted to an outside review of its contracting practices.
That review of contracts ― conducted by Nygren Consulting and released in June ― revealed more no-bid and self-dealing practices among the University of Maryland Medical System board of directors, including that executives pressured staff to use board members’ products.
“I have the utmost respect for the legislative auditors and the way they approach their jobs,” Hill said. “Their statement that the corporation ‘delayed and hindered our work by repeatedly failing to make employees available and failing to provide requested information on a timely basis’ is a great concern, particularly as it is unlikely that the choice of words was made causally.”
UMMS is a private network of more than a dozen hospitals across the state. It receives substantial public funding, and its corporate governance is controlled by Hogan and top lawmakers through their appointment of board members.
“Governor Hogan has consistently said from the beginning that UMMS has a lot of work to do to restore public trust, he has appointed new board members focused on accountability, and he certainly expects the new CEO to make more changes and reforms as part of this process," said Hogan’s spokesman, Mike Ricci.