Accretive Health, a debt-collection company under fire for allegedly hounding hospital patients over unpaid bills, has hired former President George W. Bush's top health official as part of a campaign to restore its battered reputation.
Leavitt Partners, a consulting firm chaired by former Department of Health and Human Services Secretary and ex-governor of Utah Mike Leavitt (R), will oversee a project financed by Accretive Health to "develop a process for implementing national standards for how hospitals and other providers interact with patients regarding their financial obligations," according to a news release from Accretive Health.
Other ex-politicians will serve as advisers to Leavitt, including Donna Shalala, HHS secretary during former President Bill Clinton's administration, and former Senate majority leaders Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the company said.
This panel of elder statesmen is another weapon in Accretive Health's counteroffensive against Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson (D), federal agencies and Democratic lawmakers who have questioned whether the company's methods of obtaining payments from hospital patients overstep the bounds of decency and the law. Accretive Health employees working inside Minnesota hospitals allegedly pressured emergency room patients to pay upfront or to make payments on old bills, and even visited some patients in their rooms to demand money, according to a six-volume report Swanson issued last month. The company denies the charges.
The Accretive Health-founded panel will develop "clear standards" for how medical providers and their financial contractors balance providing health-care services and their need to get paid, Leavitt said in the release. "Medical providers face a dilemma. In order to assure hospitals remain financially viable and available to patients, they must assist these same patients in making financial arrangements for payment."
He wasn't available for a telephone interview nor the advisors.
Accretive Health will pay Leavitt Partners an undetermined amount for the work, but is hoping other organizations will chip in, said Wayne Sensor, a partner at Leavitt. Accretive Health will not participate in the development of the guidelines, company spokeswoman Ruth Pachman said.
Federal and state laws already regulate hospital billing and debt collection, and prohibit hospitals from refusing to treat patients in need of emergency care.
"This isn't about compliance with the law," Sensor said. The attention brought to hospital bill and debt-collection in recent weeks has made clear that national guidelines are needed, he said.
The advisory panel will convene in June and also includes Mark McClellan, who ran the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services under Bush, and Clinton-era Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick.
Swanson's reports attracted the attention of investigators from HHS and members of Congress including Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), who have been looking into whether Accretive Health violated federal laws requiring hospitals to treat all emergency room patients regardless of their ability to pay.
State and federal officials are also inquiring whether the company broke federal patient-privacy laws. In January, Swanson sued Accretive Health over a laptop computer containing confidential patient information that was stolen from an employee's car. The Federal Trade Commission is investigating whether the company followed federal statutes governing debt-collection and credit-reporting.
Accretive Health issued a 29-page report last Friday to rebut these charges and to respond to questions Franken posed in a letter to the company. Employees of Chicago-based Accretive Health and its hospital clients speak with nearly every patient about billing, the company said, but no one was told they wouldn't receive medical care if they didn't pay. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel (D), President Barack Obama's former chief of staff, wrote Swanson this month asking her to back off Accretive Health.