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Does ‘Truth in Advertising’ Apply to Hospitals in New Jersey?

Lawmaker explores tighter standards, prompted by NJ Spotlight’s investigation of Meadowlands Hospital and its ‘birth tourism’ program aimed at Russian women

AMERIMAMA DAY 2 CAROUSEL

In online promotions designed to entice Russian women to travel to the United States to give birth at Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center in New Jersey, operators rave about the facility’s clean rooms, high-quality care, and positive health outcomes for mother and baby.

But reports from national monitoring agencies paint a different picture of the struggling Secaucus hospital. And multiple state and federal inspections have flagged problems with its protocols and operations.

The disparity in these descriptions has prompted concerns for Sen. Joseph F. Vitale, (D-Middlesex), longtime chair of the Senate Health Committee, who has raised questions about Meadowlands Hospital over the years. The facility has a history of acrimonious relations with the state’s largest healthcare unions and multiple insurance companies and it has been fined more than $200,000 by state officials for late or missing financial filings.

Reacting to NJ Spotlight’s series on Meadowlands Hospital, published last week, Vitale has started to explore how the state monitors “truth in advertising” when it comes to hospitals. He has been talking to industry leaders and other stakeholders in recent days, and hopes to determine whether the state needs additional laws or regulations to ensure patients get what is promised in consumer pitches from medical facilities.

“You can’t just say you’re the best at something and not prove it,” Vitale said. “It’s one thing when you’re talking about hamburgers. That’s subjective. But we’re talking hospitals, not hamburgers.”

Vitale also hopes to have discussions with the New Jersey Hospital Association, the industry trade group. Kerry McKean Kelly, NJHA communications director, said, “We haven't spoken with Sen. Vitale yet but we're eager to hear his thoughts and see if there are ways we can collaborate. We agree that hospitals should adhere to high standards of accuracy in their advertising.”

While New Jersey has a Consumer Fraud Act designed to deter advertisements that misrepresent, conceal, suppress, or omit material fact, it is not clear how this would apply to hospital services. The Division of Consumer Affairs also handles consumer complaints on multiple issues, including healthcare, and maintains profiles on doctors licensed to practice in the Garden State. Vitale said additional measures might be necessary.

The NJ Spotlight series detailed a “birth tourism” program called AmeriMama, which had been advertising online until recently — the Facebook page remains active — to encourage Russian mothers to deliver at Meadowlands Hospital. The website heralded the advantages of giving birth in the United States, which guarantees that a child born here to foreign parents is eligible to become a U.S. citizen (or dual citizen) thanks to the “birthright” clause in the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The website lauded the quality of care at Meadowlands, especially when compared to Russian hospitals, and raved about spotless facilities, caring staff, and excellent physicians. “We are a trusted organization, and we’ve helped deliver many children. We have repeated customers, coming for the births of their 2nd and 3rd children. Meadowlands Hospital is not only one of the best hospitals in New York but in the United States as well. Here, you will receive the best care and service,” it read, ignoring the facility’s actual location in New Jersey.

But inspections by the state Department of Health and federal Department of Health and Human Services between 2011 and 2014 revealed several concerns. Hospital leaders had failed to implement quality control systems to ensure medications were properly tracked and administered and medical errors were documented and analyzed. Other reviews found problems with preadmission testing, patient consent forms, and discharge plans. Inspectors also noted unsanitary conditions, peeling paint and exposed wiring, and expired patient food.

In addition, scores from the national non-profit watchdog Leapfrog Group have shown the quality of care slipping at Meadowlands Hospital in recent years. In the past it received high marks — As and Bs — from Leapfrog, but dropped to a C last fall, followed by a D this spring. It was the only hospital in New Jersey to receive a D, while Saint Michael’s Medical Center in Newark, which is experiencing an ownership change, got an F.

Leapfrog found several troubling indicators connected to maternity care at the hospital, in particular an extremely high rate of early elected deliveries. These chemically induced births are not uncommon, but health advocates have said they should be avoided to best protect the health of mother and child. While most hospitals induce less than 3 percent of births, Meadowlands prompted 72 percent of their births in 2014.

In addition, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Studies’ five-star rating system gave Meadowlands Hospital two out of five stars in a report released earlier this summer. The findings, which gave two stars to 30 New Jersey facilities, or 47 percent of those surveyed, was criticized by urban hospital leaders who said it didn’t account enough for demographic differences in patient populations.

Other state data suggests the facility is not busy at all. Last year, only 16 percent of the facility’s 230 beds were full, on average. Experts agree that the fewer patients a facility treats, the harder it is for it to maintain high-quality care.

A spokesman for the hospital declined a request for comment Thursday afternoon; officials also did not respond to most findings in the series.

The facility is owned by a complex network of corporations that largely revolve around four principals: Dr. Richard Lipsky, Tamara Dunaev, Pavel Pogodin, and Anastasia Burlyuk, who joined forces to purchase the near-bankrupt operation in 2010. Last month a new entity filed an application with the state to purchase the beleaguered hospital, which is now under review.

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