Tag Archives: investigative reporting

Investigation reveals abuses at brain rehab institute

Bloomberg’s David Armstrong has assembled an investigation of a huge Florida center for brain injury rehabilitation with a record of serious patient abuse, and the system which has allowed it to keep running for so long.

Armstrong talked with 20 current and former patients and their families, examined criminal and civil cases, and went through “over 2,000 pages of court and medical records, police reports, state investigations and autopsies.”

Patients’ families or state agencies have alleged abuse or care lapses in at least five residents’ deaths since 1998, two of them in the last 18 months. Three former employees face criminal charges of abusing FINR patients – one of whom was allegedly hit repeatedly for two hours in a TV room last September.

But before you get lost deep in the details of Armstrong’s report, take a minute to appreciate his deft aggregation of scores of disparate resources through convenient hyperlinks and attachments. His entire work is truly integrated with the Web in way that, even today, few investigations are. Just as importantly, it’s tied to the bigger picture and what this scandal shows about extended care for Americans with brain injuries.

The complaints underscore the problems that 5.3 million brain-injured Americans are having finding adequate care. Their numbers are growing, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as better emergency medicine and vehicle safety mean that fewer die from traffic accidents, bullet wounds and other causes of traumatic brain injuries.
The long-term ills range from memory loss and physical handicaps to the inability to control violent anger or sexual aggression. Yet because insurance benefits for rehabilitation are scarce, less than half of those who need it receive it, according to the Brain Injury Association of America.

‘Top Doctors’ rankings lack standards, oversight

It’s going to surprise exactly nobody that the organizations that help sell plaques to physicians might just be in it for the money, but I still have to tip my hat to ABC News for investigating the living daylights out of several such outfits.

The typical business model seems to be “shamelessly flatter any doctor whose contact information you can get your hands on, then refer them to your affiliated plaque salesman. Profit, rinse, repeat.” Nevertheless some doctors and consumers seem to take them seriously, with hospitals pushing their doctors to get listed, and physicians trumpeting their listings on websites and in press releases. Following their lead, ABC treated the listings just as seriously, going so far as to match them with databases of disciplined doctors. They found plenty of matches, including a few examples that were downright spectacular.

Dr. Conrad Murray, convicted of manslaughter for administering a lethal overdose of the anesthetic propofol to Michael Jackson in 2009, is still listed as a “Top Cardiologist,” according to the Consumers’ Research Council of America.

A “Top Pediatrician” according to the Consumers’ Research Council of America is also a convicted serial child rapist charged with the molestation of 103 children. Dr. Earl Bradley is currently serving 14 life sentences in addition to a 160-year prison term, yet he remains on the Consumers’ Research Council of America “Top Pediatrician” list.

Beyond the headline-grabbing details, the reporters go to great lengths to explain the company’s business models and their screening procedures, or lack thereof. My personal favorite was a website, TopDocs.com, whose CEO says he has enticed “a couple of hundred” doctors to pay from $1,500 to $10,000 for a listing, not including the $1,600 annual fee. Yet, the ABC crew writes, “In reference to the actual name ‘TopDocs.com,’ (the CEO) told ABC News, ‘We are not inferring in any way that the doctors in the site are top doctors.'”

Community relies on foreign-educated doctors

Armed with reams of data, The Bakersfield Californian‘s Kellie Schmitt charged headlong into the potential minefield of issues surrounding foreign educated-physicians with “Importing Doctors.” The series delivers a thorough take on the ramifications of the fact that the majority of her county’s doctors attended medical school overseas. (The national average, for the record, is around 25 percent).

In addition to her opening piece, which considers the benefits and drawbacks of relying on international medical graduates, Schmitt filed follow-up installments keying in on specific questions raised by her overall investigation. Of particular interest is the clear line she draws between foreign-born physicians who attended medical school in their home country before they came to the United States and American-born physicians who attended schools, often located in Mexico and the Caribbean, that cater to students who were unable to gain admittance to American medical schools. It’s a distinction that a less-nuanced data analysis could easily overlook.

Finally, while the investigation’s results are illuminating, health care journalists will probably be even more interested in Schmitt’s “How we crunched the numbers” sidebar, which can be found on the left sidebar of this story. The paper used data from the state medical board and the American Board of Medical Specialties.

Investigation reveals N.Y. lax on home care oversight

In the Albany (N.Y.) Times Union, Matt Drange’s investigation is titled “Home health care in crisis.” Having read the piece, I can say it’s safe to take that declaration at face value. At the very time that home care is booming in New York as a cheaper, more convenient alternative to nursing homes, the state has cut back on its number of health inspectors. Meanwhile, the complexity of home care cases is rising, as hospitals release patients earlier and the population as a whole ages. The results, Drange writes, have been predictable.

Lapses have gone undetected or, in many cases, unpunished by the Department of Health, the arm of state government tasked with overseeing home health agencies. Providers are not required to notify the department when patients experience sudden or unexpected changes in their condition, including death. And even when the state does learn about these incidents, it doesn’t always act on the information, records show.

For the investigation, Drange looked at public records regarding Medicaid billing, home care agency registration and plenty of state inspection reports. He focused his review on 40 of the worst offenders, and found more than enough examples to illustrate a system in crisis. Drange’s anecdotes recount numerous egregious lapses in care, and I strongly recommend digging into the meat of the piece, if only to see what incredible detail he found in public records. For now though, at the risk of mild spoilers, I’ll just reveal that they all end in the same way: The problem goes undetected, unenforced, or underpunished.

In the end, as reporters have found in other states as well, the root of the problem seems to be a weak and vaguely defined regulatory system. In his investigation, for example, Drange found a sharp contrast between the oversight of nursing homes and home care, two institutions which often perform similar functions.

(Researcher Sam Krinsky of the United Healthcare Workers East 1199 Union) said the culture of home care differs vastly from that of nursing homes, which have received more attention in New York and elsewhere.

Statements of deficiencies issued to home care agencies by the Department of Health are “not something that we take seriously,” Krinsky said.

“In nursing homes, the inspections are a big deal. There are a lot more regulations they have to comply with … It’s just a much more robust system,” he said. “In home care, it’s more of a review of paperwork. It [Department of Health] doesn’t have any teeth.”

Your thoughts on this story?

Drange, an AHCJ member and recent graduate of the Columbia Journalism School, did this investigation as his master’s project. He invites feedback from other health care reporters about the story and anything he could have done differently. Feel free to comment below or send your thoughts to him at mattdrange@gmail.com or on Twitter (@mattdrange).

Reuters explains Big Food’s remarkable lobbying success

Investigating for Reuters, Duff Wilson and Janet Roberts analyzed lobbying records and found that, in the past few years, the food industry has dramatically stepped up its spending in Washington and, they write, “largely dominated policymaking – pledging voluntary action while defeating government proposals aimed at changing the nation’s diet.” They give examples.

After aggressive lobbying, Congress declared pizza a vegetable to protect it from a nutritional overhaul of the school lunch program this year. The White House kept silent last year as Congress killed a plan by four federal agencies to reduce sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to children.

And during the past two years, each of the 24 states and five cities that considered “soda taxes” to discourage consumption of sugary drinks has seen the efforts dropped or defeated.

At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight during the last decade. They have never lost a significant political battle in the United States despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children’s marketing in obesity.

That success has come through what the authors imply is a sort of big-tobacco model, in which the industry combines promises of self-regulation with huge amounts of money, and thus creates an irresistible package for lawmakers. For a blow-by-blow on how the lobbying muscle swayed the decision-makers in recent battles, I strongly recommend you read the full piece, which draws heavily from both data and extensive interviews. Particularly interesting? The examples of how the Citizens United decision has impacted far more than just election politics.