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Archive for the ‘Consumer Protection’ Category

At long last, a favorable ruling  came in December 2016 for former patients at Yakima Regional Medical and Cardiac Center and Toppenish Community Hospital, both in Central Washington, when the hospitals agreed to pay $4.5 million into a settlement fund to compensate those who were wrongly denied financial  assistance from 2007-2014.  Last July, Yakima County Superior Court Judge Susan Hahn ruled that the hospitals had violated Washington’s Consumer Protection Act by failing to notify and screen low-income patients for free or reduced-cost care, as required under another state law, the Charity Care Act which was enacted in 1989. The Charity Care Act applies to all hospitals operating in Washington, and to all patients, insured or uninsured alike, who meet income eligibility requirements: those with incomes at 100% or less of the Federal Poverty Level  (FPL) are eligible for free care, and those whose incomes are at 101-200% of FPL are entitled to discounts.

The legal case on behalf of the patients took slightly over 3 years to be resolved. Due to record-keeping gaps at the hospitals, it is unknown how many former patients are potentially eligible for compensation under the settlement. Deliberate intent by the hospitals to withhold the required notice and eligibility screening was established during the proceedings.

Documents submitted in the lawsuit indicate hospital staff were given incentives and talking points to help them get as much money as possible from low-income patients, and that they were directed not to mention charity care as an option unless a patient knew to specifically ask for it.

In August 2016, the advocacy groups Northwest Health Law Advocates ( NoHLA) and OneAmerica published a report Yakima Regional and Toppenish Hospitals Fail to Provide Sufficient Charity Care   based on their research which revealed the financial hardships suffered by patients who could have been eligible for charity care. Likewise it was found that

Yakima Regional Medical & Cardiac Center

……although Yakima Regional is the most profitable hospital in Central Washington, it provides a significantly lower level of charity care than the regional average.

 

 

 

As a sidebar note since the settlement was announced, the two hospitals are due to soon change hands , for the third time in fourteen years. In 2003, the pair was sold to Health Management Associates and subsequently in 2014 to Tennessee-based Community Health Associates, both for-profit hospital chains. Unlike in other parts of the country, for-profit hospitals are uncommon in Washington. Commitment to upholding the Charity Care Act is one of the conditions for Department of Health approval of a hospital’s conversion from nonprofit-to-for profit.

Across the state, full compliance with the long-standing financial assistance rules can remain still elusive.  In June 2016 a class-action lawsuit against Northwest Hospital in Seattle for Charity Care violations was filed. State legislators seeking a remedy filed HB 1359  and companion SB 5231 early this year, to require that a written notice of the availability of Charity Care be included on all hospital bills. The House bill made it through the first cut-off date, and is moving forward in the legislative process. I will be posting on new developments, including provisions in the bill to ensure that notices are given in the language that patients understand.

 

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In the wake of the recent US measles outbreak, Public Health Seattle King County has published searchable data on student immunization levels covering all K-12 schools in the county.  Data fields include vaccination completion rates at each specific school ( color-coded to show rate levels); MMR immunization among kindergarteners; and immunization coverage rates in general among kindergarten and 6th grade students.  The sociodemographic correlations to vaccination  rates reflect the national trends that have made headlines, are not a surprise to locals. Kudos to the PHSKC  team for innovative use of technology in the public interest!

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Exciting news came at the end of the year for Gary Schwitzer’s Health News Review project which had lost the funding that supported the team of reviewers that analyzed the accuracy of health stories in the news and published their findings. HNR was awarded a two-year, $1.3 million grant from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation to continue and expand its work, which will now be housed in the new Center for Media Communication and Health in the U of Minnesota School of Public Health.

I’ll be looking forward to more important stories coming our way soon to share here.  And all of us can hone our critical thinking skills on health news stories by applying the HNR  framework anytime:

What’s the total cost?
How often do benefits occur?HealthNewsReview
How often do harms occur?
How strong is the evidence?
Is this condition exaggerated?
Are there alternative options?
Is this really a new approach?
Is it available to me?
Who’s promoting this?
Do they have a conflict of interest?

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Old US Public Health Service Hospital (known as Pacific Tower during its tenure as Amazon HQ building) to become new satellite campus for allied health professions programs of Seattle Central Community College and serve as site for public agencies and NGOs. AmazonBeaconHillHQ*304

Seattleite Jeanne Sather, author of Assertive Cancer patient  blog ,died from metastatic breast cancer  15 years after her original diagnosis

In June the King County Board of Health unanimously approved creation of drug take-back system for county residents , to be financed by a 2-cent per Rx tax. On Dec. 1, PhRMA filed a lawsuit against King County , claiming that the plan causes a financial burden for patients and that in-home disposal of  medicines is the best way to keep Rx drugs out of the wrong hands.

State to review hospital affiliations — Catholic and otherwise

Public hospital CEO gets pay cut to $1 M per year, at Renton’s Valley Medical Center

Harborview to close  pediatrics, women’s, & family clinics

Health Care Reform for American Indians and Alaska Natives 2013  including WA-specific page

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Two recent news stories about honey, illustrate yet again the vital importance of communications to health.  In these completely unrelated cases, it was all about translations, the rendering of messages from one written language to another. The fraudsters seemed to have assumed they could get away with selling their products to unsuspecting consumers due to a lack of language skills on the part of regulatory authorities.

In September,  Bloomberg Businessweek  broke the story on a honey scandal at the global level with an article entitled The Honey Launderers: Uncovering the Largest Food Fraud in U.S. History , describing a convoluted plot by German company ALW to sell millions of pounds of Chinese honey in the US, by disguising its origins.  Over the course of several years, ALW arranged with the Chinese brokers to channel their product through other countries, where it was filtered, doused with additives to disguise its unpleasant  flavor, and re-labeled  to make it seem to have come from nations authorized to export honey to the US.  Some of the adulterated honey was also found to contain residues of the antibiotic chloramphenicol, long banned in the US.  The impetus for the fraud was purely financial , as honey fetches top dollar in this country, the major world consumer.  Over a decade ago when domestic beekeepers complained that honey imports from China were seriously undercutting their business, the US imposed such stiff tariffs on Chinese honey imports that little enters the country legally any more. But the super-cheap price of honey in China has remained a lure for international exporters. Some Chinese feat_honey39chart_630producers seize this opportunity to increase their own profits by artificially  increasing the quantity of honey available to be sold.  According to the FDA investigation of this case, a number of  techniques like harvesting the honey early and not letting the bees complete the process naturally were routinely used in China, along with machine-drying the honey to speed things along.  ALW abetted the process and instructed its 2nd-country middlemen to add  sweeteners to disguise the sour taste caused by the premature harvesting.

In order to keep the doings secret, ALW  officials exhorted the young German employees sent to run the firm’s US operations to use the phone, not emails, to discuss business and to conduct all communications in their native language.  While the staff did restrict their discussions to the German language, they continued to use emails for correspondence. Their missives were later translated into English during the course of the FDA investigation.  The federal  prosecutor who worked on the case commented:

“They were extremely sophisticated and intelligent in some ways, but so sloppy in other ways. What do they think—no one can translate German?”

Earlier in the year in a less notorious case, the honey firm Nature Nate’s in Texas garnered FDA censure because it violated the instructions issued by the FDA following a 2012 audit, when the company was ordered to stop advertising its honey in ways that characterized it as a drug, i.e. by making various health claims for its products.  While Nate’s had promised to stop the spurious marketing by Fall of 2012,  an FDA follow-up in mid-2013 found that the firm continued to make these claims on its Spanish-language website,  under the banner ” Remedios Caseros con Miel or Honey Home Remedies “, Spanish_honey_remedies describing such benefits (in English translation) as:

• “Food Poisoning. Blend 1 Tablespoon Apple Cider Vinegar and 1 Tablespoon of North Dallas Honey dissolved in a glass of chilled water.”

“‘[O]rganic honey’. A client of mine that is a doctor told me to try yours for allergy relief. It has COMPLETELY eliminated allergies for the entire household … it is our daily dose … “

A cached copy of the Spanish information on how to use Nate’s honey as an arthritis remedy said:

Para la artritis – 100% Pure Raw & Unfiltered Honey naturenates.com/espanol/para-la-artritis
“Receta 1. Tome una taza de agua caliente con dos cucharadas de miel y una cucharadita de canela en polvo por la mañana y la noche. …

FDA translation: “May Help with Arthritis. Recipe 1. Take 1 cup of hot water with two spoons of honey and one small teaspoon of cinnamon powder both morning and night. .. “

The FDA issued the new warning letter in June 2013, and Spanish version of  Nature Nate’s  website appears to have now been taken down.

And the phenomenon of the FDA using translation as an investigative tool is hopefully now a regular practice, as a evidenced by yet another recent case, this time involving the Sundial herbal supplement company which got an FDA Warning Letter based on claims made solely in Spanish which characterized its products as drugs.  As a commentator for Regulatory Affairs so aptly explained

…just because a product’s unapproved claims aren’t in English, that doesn’t mean FDA isn’t paying attention.

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Recent news of note:

Report: Debt Collectors Work In Emergency Rooms, Demand Payment Before Patients Receive Care

Abbott To Pay $1.6 Billion To Settle Depakote Probes

Discrepancies on Medical Bills Can Leave a Credit Stain

American Pain Foundation Shuts Down as Senators Launch Investigation of Prescription Narcotics

Insurers back FDA plan for new drug category

Patients Share Of Expensive Specialty Drugs Is Rising

Racial, Socioeconomic Disparities Alleged In Autism Spending

Premera tries to gut drug benefits, Kreidler says no 

and a shout out to an excellent source of news and analysis with a focus on Oregon and the broader context:

The Lund Report: Unlocking Oregon’s Healthcare System

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Recent developments in Washington and neighboring Oregon are reminders of the clout and lobbying power of Big Pharma on the local level.

Seattle City Councilmember Tom Rasmussen announced that he was working to implement a  discounted prescription drug program for Seattlites , a program of the National League of Cities.  At first glance this might seem like a boon most of us, cash-strapped and increasingly uninsured and underinsured, but in reality the plan is not needed, won’t offer much in the way of bargains, and is linked to a questionable PBM. With all due respect to Rasmussen, who undoubtedly has good intentions , he seems unaware that we already have a drug discount program available at no charge to all state residents, the Washington Prescription Drug Program , which offers discounts up to 60% on generics and 20% on branded drugs, while the NLC program  offers maximum discounts up to 23% of full retail prices.  Another concern is that the NLC card is an offering of CVS Caremark, the mega-PBM which has earned itself notoriety for  unethical business practices, including overcharging government employee health plans ( including the federal plan) for Rx medicines and drug-switching on scripts. The Seattle-only program is due to start next month, so now is a good time to weigh in with Rasmussen and his fellow City Councilmembers , as well as with Mayor Mike McGinn on the issue.  In addition to helping to increase awareness of the WPDP, our city elected officials could really offer a public service by creating a drug price comparison tool that surveys Seattle pharmacies.

And in the Washington Legislature, among several bills dealing with prescription drugs ( look for my comments in the future), for the third year in a row we saw  Drug Companies Fight Take-Back Program for Unused Medicine. They claim that take-back programs, which they would be required to help pay for, would do little to stop  abuse of prescription drugs and that environmental concerns about trashing meds are essentially bogus. Take Back Your Meds, a group of over 260 health organizations, police, drugstores, local governments, environmental groups and concerned individuals vows to keep up the fight.

In Oregon, a legislative defeat with direct negative impact there and for partner WA in the Northwest  Drug Purchasing Consortium , pharma and insurance industry muscle united to make sure that  Oregon Prescription Drug Program Bill Dies a Second Death. SB 1577 would have required all state agencies to purchase medicines for beneficiaries through the Oregon Prescription Drug Program, reversing the current optional  status.  When the OPDP and the WPDP were created in 2005, they formed the Northwest Prescription Drug Purchasing Consortium to achieve better prices through pooled volume purchasing but left participation optional for state agencies. In both states, for example,  the Dept. of Corrections does not participate.  And with efforts to control Rx costs stymied, we are seeing scenarios such as this year’s state budget proposal in Washington to eliminate completely prescription drug coverage for adults in the Medicaid program, only now with some hope of possible mitigation if competitive bidding for generic drugs is approved by the Legislature now in Special Session.

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