Meadowlands Hospital Union Accuses State of Lax Enforcement of Regulations

Andrew Kitchenman | July 14, 2015 | Health Care
Health commissioner defends approach, calls oversight ‘precedent-setting,’ while hospital cites union’s animosity toward for-profits

Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center
Persistent violations of state regulations by Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center has led a hospital labor union official to accuse the state Department of Health of failing to hold Meadowlands, a for-profit hospital, accountable.

That was flatly denied by Department of Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd, who says the state’s oversight of the hospital has been intense and that a series of fines against the hospital have set a precedent for future enforcement actions.

The state recently levied fines against the hospital for failing to file audited financial statements for both 2012 and 2013. The total of both the original fines and additional penalties for slow responses has reached $92,000. Last year’s report also is overdue.

Health Professionals and Allied Employees (HPAE) union officials have demanded stricter action against the hospital for several years, following Meadowlands’ conversion from nonprofit to for-profit status.

The issue of financial reporting is particularly sensitive with for-profit hospitals, since they don’t have to make as much information public as their nonprofit peers.

The union, which represents nurses, technicians, and service workers at the hospital, has demanded that the state appoint a manager to oversee the hospital.

O’Dowd has responded that Meadowlands has been getting far more attention than any other hospital.

For their part, hospital officials have said that their management has brought stability to the hospital’s operations, allowing it to score well in state measurements of hospital performance.

In addition, Meadowlands officials say they’ve invested in technology improvements that will allow the hospital to file its state financial reports on a timely basis in the future.

HPAE Chief of Staff Jeanne Otersen yesterday renewed the union’s call for a state-appointed manager.

“I think the fines are a continuing and clear indication that the Department of Health is unable to hold Meadowlands Hospital accountable to the standards it sets for every other hospital in New Jersey,” Otersen said.

The state has taken steps to recoup the fines by deducting the money from state Medicaid payments to the hospital, but Otersen wasn’t impressed.

“While I appreciate that they have increased the fines and developed a new method of getting the fines resolved, it seems to me it’s merely a minor cost to Meadowlands, or they could have complied a long time ago,” said.

Otersen said that the state’s handling of Meadowlands is emblematic of a broader failure by state government to ensure that sales of nonprofit hospitals to for-profits have benefited patients.

“I think we’ve seen under the Christie administration, less enforcement, less oversight, and a hands-off regulatory approach — and we would disagree with that (approach) in general,” Otersen said.

O’Dowd rejected that criticism.

“There’s no other hospital that has gotten the level of scrutiny and oversight” that Meadowlands has faced over the past four years, O’Dowd said.

Much of this scrutiny has been in response to complaints filed by the HPAE itself. Department of Health safety inspectors made 38 visits to the hospitals from 2011 through 2014, O’Dowd said.

“In terms of (being a) watchdog and oversight, that’s a pretty resounding focus from the Department of Health,” O’Dowd said. “That is in addition to precedent-setting fines relative to financial reporting.”

The financial oversight is a result of the conditions that the state placed on the sale of the hospital to Meadowlands’ current parent company, MHA LLC, as part of the state’s Certificate of Need review of the sale.

“I appreciate that (HPAE officials) are in a conflict with management, but to articulate a lack of focus and intervention is just not the case,” O’Dowd said, adding that “I don’t think there’s another institution it the state” that’s received more on-site inspections and fines, as well as visits from high-ranking state officials at hospital board meetings.

In a June 1 letter to hospital Chief Operating Officer Lynn McVey, state Assistant Commissioner of Health Susan J. Dougherty notified the hospital of its current penalties.

Dougherty warned the hospital that its failure to file required reports would harm its ability to receive state approval for future changes in its operations, which would require the hospital to file Certificate of Need applications.

Dougherty wrote that the hospital’s “persistent failures” to meet state mandates “constitute on-going and serious track record violations that shall weigh against approval of future CN and licensing applications submitted” to the state by Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center.

[related]O’Dowd said the state’s ultimate goal is ensure that Meadowlands is responsive to its patients , and that state officials have been responsive to complaints against the hospital.

“I appreciate to some individuals it will never be enough, until they themselves are running the hospital,” said O’Dowd, who is planning to leave her position this summer.

Hospital spokesman Alfred Gaburo said hospital executives intend to file both overdue audited financial statements by the end of the summer, after the hospital straightened out technology “systems issues” which had prevented accurate filings.

Gaburo added that it’s clear that HPAE officials have been rooting “for the hospital to fail for many years. They have consistently opposed for-profit operations that have brought needed capital and jobs to New Jersey. The real story here is that current ownership has not only stabilized the hospital upon taking over, but have put systems in place that have led to not only a profitable enterprise, but a hospital that consistently scores well” in Department of Health surveys.

He was referring to state data on hospital quality.

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