The consulting firm running D.C.'s only public hospital came under growing pressure Friday as the hospital's chief medical officer and a former executive who oversaw quality of care said the firm has disregarded patients' safety in an effort to preserve a lucrative contract with the District government.
Veritas of Washington faced intense criticism at a public hearing by the D.C. Council's health committee, as Maria Costino, who until several months ago was United Medical Center's director of quality management and patient safety, said the firm's employees repeatedly sought to handicap her work.
Following her testimony, Julian Craig, the hospital's chief medical officer, arrived unexpectedly at city hall with a letter asserting that Veritas had effectively dismantled the hospital's system of patient safeguards. He also alleged that the firm may have violated District and federal law by directing doctors to admit patients for overnight stays at UMC who did not actually require treatment.
"I think they've done tremendous damage to the hospital already. Patient safety and quality has suffered," Craig testified. He said any improvements to the hospital's tenuous financial situation under Veritas had come at the expense of patients. "Morally and ethically, I think that's something city council members have to weigh," he said.
A spokeswoman for Veritas and UMC did not respond to requests for comment.
Hospital Board of Directors Chair LaRuby May was testifying as Craig's letter arrived and said she had not read it. "I would ask that you not assume that document to be accurate," May said.
The council will vote Tuesday on whether to extend the contract for Veritas, which has been managing the Southeast Washington's only hospital for a fee of $300,000 per month since last year. The firm is owned by Chrystie Boucrée, whose husband, longtime health-care executive Corbett Price — along with his relatives and companies — made more than $35,000 in political donations to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) in 2014. Her administration issued a no-bid contract to Veritas.
Another Price consulting firm was running a New York City hospital when it filed for bankruptcy. In 2013, the New York State Department of Health barred that firm, Kurron Shares of America, from continuing to manage the hospital, citing concerns about pay provisions in the company's contract.
At UMC, scrutiny of Veritas of Washington has grown amid a string of high-profile lapses in patient care. In August, the D.C. Department of Health shut down the hospital's nursery and delivery rooms after discovering dangerous medical errors in the treatment of pregnant women and newborns.
Earlier this week The Washington Post reported on the case of Warren Webb, a 47-year-old resident of UMC's nursing home. He died of a heart attack in August after repeatedly crying out for help and was left on the floor by his nurse. The hospital did not report key details of that incident to regulators, who nevertheless are now investigating Webb's death based on The Post's reporting.
In their testimony to the health committee, Craig and Costino asserted that lapses in patient care can be traced to decisions by the Veritas team.
In his letter, which he read aloud Friday, Craig wrote that Veritas eliminated the jobs of two key employees who oversaw quality of care, actions he said "served as an important catalyst for the downward spiral that the institution faces today."
He also said that Veritas's former chief executive, Luis Hernandez, directed doctors to unnecessarily admit patients for overnight treatment, a practice he said "would result in unnecessary treatment and expense for medically unnecessary services to a number of UMC patients" and "unjustifiable charges to the government" when such patients were covered by Medicare or Medicaid.
Craig said he complained to the hospital's human resources department in February that Hernandez had put the hospital "at serious federal regulatory and financial risk" and "had put members of the medical staff's careers and medical licenses in jeopardy."
Craig alleged in his letter that the Veritas directive to admit extra patients led to possible overbilling of the federal government earlier this year by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Veritas employee David Boucrée, who is the cousin of the firm's owner, told The Post at the time that the billing errors were a "legacy" problem that predated Veritas.
"Veritas has disregarded patient care and committed malfeasance in its efforts to increase patient volume," Craig wrote.
Debra S. Katz, a prominent Washington whistleblower attorney who is representing Craig, said he had documentation to prove his allegations but declined Friday to release it.
Costino, a registered nurse who was director of quality at Northern Westchester Hospital in New York and vice president of quality at Westchester Medical Center before coming to UMC last December, testified that she left the hospital after only 7 months because of "a lack of support by the Veritas leadership and continued pushback and interference" from Diane Kelly, one of the consultants the firm deployed to the hospital.
In a January complaint to the hospital's human resources department, reviewed by The Post, Costino said Veritas officials were involved in "an attempt to curtail my activities and filter my reports."
She said Kelly once told her, during a discussion of weaknesses in UMC's patient-safety program, "you know Veritas will be blamed for this" and instructed her "not to speak to anyone" about problems she identified until Kelly reviewed her findings.
In a March letter responding to Costino's complaint, a human resources official said that after an investigation they had "concluded that Dr. Kelly may have engaged in certain conduct that is inconsistent with various hospital policies and expectations, including, but not limited to our policies governing workplace harassment."
Kelly could not be reached for comment.
In her June 2017 resignation letter, Costino said it "has become increasingly apparent to me (the) tools and the support I need will not be forthcoming."
May, a former D.C. Council member who has received $3,000 in political donations from Price and his family and companies since 2014, testified that if the council rejects the Veritas contract it would be "a dire situation for the hospital."
She said the problem was not the hospital's management but what she described as "negative" and "unfair" media attention UMC has received.
"We're trying to create a culture of trust. Others are trying to work against that. It has an impact on the number of patients that are coming to the hospital," May said.