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Private equity may be impacting quality of hospital care in Las Cruces

Peter Goodman is a commentator based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Courtesy photo.
Peter Goodman is a commentator based in Las Cruces, New Mexico.


Under private equity ownership, Memorial Medical Center’s extreme focus on “profit over safety” apparently has torpedoed morale, endangered patients, undermined collegiality, and could violate its lease and the law.

[Please note that this column is my opinion. Maybe MMC has answers, excuses, or explanations to these questions. I’ve been trying to interview MMC CEO John Harris.]

Any hospital depends on oversight and collegiality. MMC was part of a National Physicians Advisory Board related to Duke University. Then it wasn’t, and used [obviously less rigorous] questionnaires instead. A Medical Committee that was a counterweight to the administration, safeguarding patients’ interests, reportedly has been weakened. Meanwhile, doctors who questioned problems were retaliated against. But doctors should ask questions!

“The profit over safety motivation, particularly during COVID, was appalling,” commented ex-MMC Doctor Jonathan Owens. Another doctor said that during that public health emergency, “all the administration wanted to do was find ways around the governor’s mandate against doing elective surgeries. They wanted to do joints, heart surgery, and weight-loss surgery because those were profit centers. It was incredibly disheartening.” Several said Harris initially “was denying that COVID was even a thing” and “spinning conspiracy theories,” which was “completely demoralizing to the medical staff.” Doctors watching patients suffer, or even die, were hearing that MMC needed to do weight-loss surgeries.

MMC set up a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), and hired Dr. Jorge Saenz to run it. Soon an unusually high percentage of pediatric admissions were “intensive-care.” Pediatrician Heather Owens, some of whose patients got admitted as “intensive-care,” says that “for PICU admissions of the magnitude MMC saw, we’d have to be suffering an order of magnitude increased illness.” PICU admissions reportedly were several times the national average of 10-15%. (Hospitals, of course, can charge more for treating someone in intensive care. Maybe MMC didn’t. Authorities should investigate whether “maximizing profits” became “defrauding medicare.”)

Saenz’s abrasiveness exacerbated tension. Doctors should be collegial. Efforts to help him improve on that score failed. Dr. Heather Owens said that twice Saenz’s conduct toward her resulted in complaints to medical staff. Several sources said Harris stepped in to protect Saenz.

Did MMC sometimes prioritize especially lucrative departments over important but less profitable ones? One doctor, “worried about patients because of an antiquated medical-records system. The Emergency Department repeatedly requested new monitoring machines. Unsuccessfully. Patients suffered. When one died, the malfunctioning machine failed to notify staff. No one knew of the death until someone went in to check vitals. Had the machine alerted ER staff, could that patient have been saved? Reportedly, even after that event, it took a long time to get new monitors.

Several said MMC is understaffed and overworks people. That helped cause Dr. Jonathan Owens’s departure. MMC’s RN/patient ratio is reportedly low. One patient, herself a nurse, described substandard care and staff “consisting of floats, traveler, and often tired and disgruntled aides and LPNs.” She said, “MMC has given me two near death experiences.” Doctors, though they acknowledged nurses have been more scarce since COVID, criticized MMC for its nursing shortage.

Activist Yoli Diaz calls MMC’s refusal to treat indigent cancer patients, and treatment delays, “atrocious, barbaric, and illegal.” She contends it violates state law and a lease provision requiring continuation of service to indigents. She adds, “as a private equity firm operation, they are a profit driven, price gouging business with aggressive collection practices and predatory billing.”

This is the second of three columns.

Peter Goodman's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU.