Death and Profits

When Hugh Westbrook pioneered hospice care, his organization saw to the needs of the dying. Fifteen years later nothing has changed -- except the politics and the profit margins.

In the wake of the investigation, the federal office that administers Medicare did review HCI claims more closely. But despite the suggestion made by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago, no comprehensive investigation of HCI was undertaken, according to a spokeswoman for the Inspector General's Office in Washington, D.C.

Noticeably absent from Chicago during those turbulent days was Hugh Westbrook. In fact, his name never appeared in any of the original Chicago Tribune stories. Today he echoes Esther Colliflower and Don Gaetz in claiming that the problem was an isolated event, not representative of his company's policies. "What we are providing to people is expert, compassionate care," Westbrook says. "Well, not every manager knows how to run an organization and manage that kind of compassionate, care-giving staff. There is always a danger when you start an organization and see it become larger that the people who end up running it are not as in touch with the original vision as they need to be. I don't think the issue is that you become numbers-driven; the real issue is that you choose the wrong people sometimes."

Following the Chicago episode, Mark Singer, Debi Dunlap, and Susan Koziol were not the only ones to depart HCI. Company president Neil Bennett left as well. In his place, Westbrook hired Earl "Duke" Collier, a former deputy administrator for the Health Care Finance Administration during the Carter Administration.

More changes followed. Last year Hospice Care Inc. changed its name to VITAS Healthcare Corporation. (According to Westbrook, the change was prompted not by any effort to distance the company from the unflattering publicity in Chicago, but by the desire for a distinctive name; the word "hospice" was being used by many organizations.)

A new president and a new name aren't the only noteworthy developments in the growing HCI/VITAS family. Perhaps the clearest sign that the Rev. Hugh A. Westbrook's mission has become smart business is the involvement of a new investor. Chemed, a Cincinnati-based corporation that also owns the drain-clearing Roto-Rooter company, has dropped $27 million into Westbrook's coffers. In return, Chemed has the right to buy up to 25 percent of the company at a future date. Says Chemed executive vice president Tim O'Toole: "We think it is a very sound business opportunity. We believe it is a very unique company.

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