The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Tenet Healthcare scandal:
Part of a health care system that kills for profits

Nov 25, 2002

Last June, John Corapi, a 55-year-old priest, was told by his doctor, Dr. Chae Moon, the director of cardiology at Tenet Healthcare Corporation's Redding Medical Center in northern California, that he needed emergency heart bypass surgery. But Corapi decided to go for a second opinion. In the next two weeks he saw five cardiologists, who all told him the same thing: he didn't need heart surgery. When Corapi went back to Redding and spoke to the head of the hospital, not only was he ignored, his complaints were covered up.

For most people, this is where matters would have rested. But Corapi is a lecturer in medical ethics with many contacts in the medical field. So he eventually was able to force federal authorities to look into his case. The FBI eventually concluded that at least half the heart patients operated on by two doctors at Redding Medical Center, Dr. Moon and Dr. Fidel Realyvasquez, had unnecessary heart surgery. On October 30, 40 FBI agents raided the Redding Medical Center, seizing hospital records and computers.

This opened up a broader inquiry into the owner of the Redding Medical Center, the Tenet Healthcare Corporation. Tenet, which owns 113 acute-care hospitals, is the second largest owner of private hospitals in the country. Up until the end of October, Tenet was also considered to be something of a star on Wall Street. Since 2000, that is, when most companies' profits were sharply decreasing, Tenet's profits were growing at a rate of 25% per year.

Now the federal government says that it is investigating Tenet for the generalized and systematic overbilling of Medicare. The SEC is also looking into the insider trading of stocks by Tenet executives. In just a few short weeks, it seems like Tenet has turned into a source of one scandal after another, a kind of Enron Corporation of the health care field.

But Tenet has been caught not just stealing money. If what is said about the two heart surgeons in Redding is true, then supposedly eminent doctors risked the lives of hundreds and hundreds of patients, carrying out dangerous and risky operations – simply for the insurance money. Surely, some of the patients didn't even survive the surgery – which is murder. And of those who survived, most will never be the same, either mentally or physically. They are condemned to lead the rest of their lives in pain, under heavy medication, with their lives severely shortened and their mental functions impaired.

Certainly, most doctors would not do what these two doctors have been accused of doing – at least that is what one would hope. But two doctors out to make extra millions at the expense of the lives of their patients never could have gotten away with it without the complicity of the hospital, Tenet, and the entire medical establishment – which all happen to be driven by the same forces that drive the rest of the capitalist economy – profits.

This is confirmed by the fact that even today, these doctors continue to practice medicine – indeed they continue to operate on patients. It is ironic that in a country in which prosecutors fall all over themselves to prove how tough they are on crime, none have moved to have these doctors arrested, and certainly none have called for the death penalty for doctors who have taken the lives of their patients in order to rip off tax payers.

Neither have these same prosecutors and law makers who pretend to protect the public's purse strings and supposedly oppose "government waste" made much of a fuss over the broader charges that Tenet systematically overbilled Medicare. At most they try to pretend that Tenet is the exception, that it was merely more "aggressive" in charging ever more outrageous and stupendous prices for its services.

But in fact, from the moment the big federal Medicare program was introduced back in 1965, tax dollars have driven the incredible cost increases in the medical care industry. Perhaps at their beginning, Medicare and other government programs extended medical coverage to portions of the population that had no coverage, such as among the elderly or the very poor. But these government programs were always used by the medical care industry to increase their profits. Over the years, Medicare has become their "cash cow."Today, the medical care industry is the largest single industry in the country, soaking up no less than 1.5 trillion dollars, or 14% of the entire U.S. economy. That kind of wealth and resources should pay for a lot of health care for the entire population. But we have the exact opposite. On the one hand, some, such as all those who were operated on just so that the doctors and the hospital companies can get hold of their insurance money, get unnecessary medical care. On the other hand, medical costs are so high that over 41 million people have no insurance coverage at all, while a majority of people don't have adequate medical coverage – including most people on Medicare.

While some of the largest and wealthiest companies in the world – such as pharmaceuticals, hospitals and insurance companies - grow ever wealthier, these same companies are always finding excuses to cut staff and therefore care. And every year, the problems are getting deeper and health care gets more distorted.

The scandals at Tenet are not the exception. No, they are only the tip of the iceberg in a system in which profits come first, and the care and health of human beings count for less and less.