Linda Peeno, Famed Whistleblower, at Sicko Premiere

June 30, 2007 · Print This Article · Email This Post

Linda Peeno, Managed Health Care WhistleblowerWith the release of Michael Moore’s Sicko movie and the trailer which included a segment of Dr. Linda Peeno’s riveting 1996 Congressional testimony regarding the failures of the managed health care “industry” and medical ethics, we thought we’d revisit some of her testimony today. Not much has changed…

Here is a woman with guts, fortitude and ethics. This well-known whistleblower was a former medical reviewer for Humana, an HMO “darling” of the 1980s and 1990s. She was in Washington, D.C. last night for the premiere of Sicko.

Here’s an excerpt from her Capitol Hill testimony, Ethics from the Frontlines:

“I wish to begin by making a public confession: In the spring of 1987, as a physician, I caused the death of a man.

“Although this was known to many people, I have not been taken before any court of law or called to account for this in any professional or public forum. In fact, just the opposite occurred: I was ‘rewarded’ for this. It bought me an improved reputation in my job, and contributed to my advancement afterwards. Not only did I demonstrate I could indeed do what was expected of me, I exemplified the ‘good’company doctor: I saved a half million dollars!

“Since that day, I have lived with this act, and many others, eating into my heart and soul. For me, a physician is a professional charged with the care, or healing, of his or her fellow human beings. The primary ethical norm is: do no harm. I did worse: I caused a death. Instead of using a clumsy, bloody weapon, I used the simplest, cleanest of tools: my words. The man died because I denied him a necessary operation to save his heart. I felt little pain or remorse at the time. The man’s faceless distance soothed my conscience. Like a skilled soldier, I was trained for this moment. When any moral qualms arose, I was to remember: I am not denying care; I am only denying payment.”

“At the time, this helped avoid any sense of responsibility for my decision. Now I am no longer willing to accept this escapist reasoning that allowed me to rationalize this action. I accept my responsibility now for this man’s death, as well as for the immeasurable pain and suffering many other decisions of mine caused.

“For me, ‘ethics’ must be done close range. Distance blurs the complexities of human experiences. Those who argue that ‘the further removed, the clearer the thinking’ are those who too often use ‘ethics’ as legalism, public relations, or high-sounding rationalization. I would argue that, at least in medicine, one’s ethical ‘authority’ diminishes the further one is from the frontlines of patient experiences.

This is why I do not call myself an ‘ethicist.’ I am less interested in the theoretical claims and more interested in the experience of persons who suffer the effects of these claims. For me, ‘ethics’ is the process of determining how to function day in and day out, in the tiny, painful, exhausting step-by-step decisions of everyday life. I maintain that we can never escape accountability for the consequences of our decisions and actions, however remote they seem. Furthermore, I believe we are responsible not only for what we do, but what we set in motion.”

“Since leaving my last corporate position, I have devoted my personal and professional life to concerns for medical and health care ethics at the level of the consumer/patient experience. If I am an expert, it is in the ways in which harm occurs in our system, and the ways it affects the lives of people who have trusted doctors and insurance companies with their care. I have forged this knowledge not from the safe, painless study of ethics from a distance, but from the close participation in a system’s ethical transgressions.

“Nothing in my education as a physician prepared me for what I experienced as an ‘executive doctor.’ I thought I could easily translate my professional code of ethics as a physician to my work in the business of health care. I left my job as a medical reviewer for Humana’s national market, to become the medical director of a 35,000 member HMO. Later, my work as a medical director in a hospital and as a physician executive at Blue Cross/Blue Shield of Kentucky convinced me that the place made no difference. Whether it was non-profit or for-profit, whether it was a health plan or a hospital, I had a common task: using my medical expertise for the financial benefit of the organization, often at great harm and potentially death, to some patients.

“When I realized this, I could no longer do these jobs. I left a six figure job in order to work for the persons with the least voice in health care: patients. This required more than medical education. I have spent the past four years studying in areas of ethics and philosophy; medical and health care law; health care organization and financing; utilization and quality management; information resources management; and international health care systems analysis. I have used my ‘expertise’ to assist in health reform, public and professional education, and international health system design. My work has taken me from community rooms in rural USA to townships in South Africa. I struggle with the tensions between individual and society, between care and cost, between ethics and economics — close range. I do not take the luxury of doing this remotely, safe from the ‘battlefield.’ As difficult as it is, I put myself continuously at the level of pain and suffering so I cannot ever forget the connection between the ‘system’ and its consequences.”

“Also, I have taken seriously my own ethical responsibilities: I have educated myself not only with the books, but with the stories of people who suffer. I have painfully dissected every experience of my own from the inside out, until I understand the ways they represent industry practice, their ethical implications, and how it is possible to go awry. I have taken every penny ‘earned’ from my work in this and folded it back into work to benefit those affected by an increasingly heartless health care system.

“I do this because I know the system inside and out. I know where the dangers are. Although many persons are quick to extol the ease and affordability of their plan, the real tests come when someone needs something expensive. Like a bucolic pasture turn battlefield, the landmines start exploding everywhere. (I know because I have helped set more than a few.) These landmines were part of my ordinary armamentarium — including some of the below:

  • benefits restriction, or making the covered benefits as narrow as the market would allow (sneaking in a few exclusions that most consumers would not be knowledgeable enough to understand, e.g. in one of my plans we had regular meetings to determine what our highest costs were and how we could redesign benefits to control them);
  • exclusions, which would multiply every year, and would rarely be known to the member or a treating physician until pulled out by plan to justify a denial;
  • pre-existing exclusions, to ensure that persons with known conditions would either forgo our plan, or give us the mechanism to avoid payment for services, creating a game of wits to figure out ways to make current needs connect with some prior diagnosis;
  • evasive and uninformed marketing so individuals in groups we wanted would only know the attractive elements of the plan, but none of the potential problem areas; in addition members would never know the exact coverage limits and rules of the plan until after the enrollment period when they would receive their benefit booklet;
  • underwriting, or selection of the ‘best’ groups, which meant that medical information of individuals and groups were reviewed in detail, with projections made about economic liability to the plan; making these kinds of predictions often put me, as a physician, into the roll of ‘bookie’ for the plan;
  • contract design, especially for physicians; it is common knowledge in the health care business that few physicians read, much less understand, most of the terms of the contracts they would sign for us; furthermore we would exploit their economic vulnerability by telling them they could either sign or be excluded;
  • maze of rules for authorizations, referrals and network availability created in order to make ‘technical’ denials possible (e.g. failing to go through convoluted procedures set out in a ‘certificate of coverage,’ which we knew few persons ever read, would be grounds for denial of payment);
  • claims of authority to extract compliance from members and physicians for the desired economic outcomes, e.g. offering a grievance process but making it a sham in its results or eliciting certain practice patterns by threats to de-selection; and finally
  • denials for ‘medical necessity,’ whether prospectively or retrospectively, determining that something is not ‘medically necessary,’ according to criteria that is non-standard and rarely developed along accepted clinical methods, becomes the ultimate weapon for the plan, the ‘smart bomb’ for ‘cost containment.’

“I am the evidence that managed care is inherently unethical, in the areas of both medicine and business. Had my experiences been the result of merely local aberrations, I would not have had anything to do for the past six years. On the contrary, I discovered that my experiences are standard practice and quite ordinary for the managed care business. This fuels my work in ethics. The greatest irony to me is how the words ‘quality’ and ‘outcome’ have come to be industry buzz words, yet neither are ever applied to the managed care practice itself. We have enough stories of maleficence by managed care to fill tomes, and yet we continue to allow the industry to claim that these occurrences are simple anecdotes. As long as we accept that rationale, we sanction a system that is functioning with virtually no checks and balances — ethical or legal. At a time when nearly every other human endeavor faces ethical scrutiny, how can we allow a particular industry to escape — especially one with so much potential harm?”

“At the level of medical practice, we have rightfully abandoned the paternalistic model of medicine — i.e. we no longer believe that a professional can do certain things in certain ways regardless of effects so long as it is justified by benevolent reasons. Furthermore, we do not subscribe in this country to authoritative use of power to override individual protection and rights for some purported ‘greater good,’ especially if that ‘good’ has not been worked out through the democratic process. We have two major reasons to scrutinize the unethical practice of managed care.

“Our claims to the ‘best health care system’ in the world is beginning to have a cynical truth. We certainly do the business of health care better than anyone else. As a result, we have entered a dire phase others should avoid. We have created a monster system, one in which among other transgressions, a physician can receive a high income for doing the reverse of the profession. Instead of delivering care, a physician can be significantly rewarded for denying it. What matters if individual patients are harmed or killed, if the professional is true to a higher mission for society?

“Ethical action produces trust, dependability, harmony. It depends upon equity and disclosure. We have no ethical foundation if we are producing discord and destruction of human bodies and spirits. The ethical process of managed care must be worked out within the context of its effects, close to its consequences, attentive to the stories of those who are most adversely affected.”

“The real societal good — our well-being and lives — depend upon it.”

Read her full testimony to the U.S. House of Representatives, Managed Care Ethics: The Close View. It’s strong stuff.

Read another post about how managed health care denied the claim of a 17-year-old California girl, who died while waiting for insurance approval of a liver transplant.

Copyright © 2007


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