Who Will Defend Kentucky’s Academic Institutions Against Political Capture?

[Below is the full text of my shortened Op-Ed piece published on-line by the Courier Journal on Aug 8, and in the print edition of Aug 9.  The complaint by Dr. Mullins and links to background and documentation are also available.]

I submit this as an open letter to the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACS) and to the Louisville community. On August 2, the Courier-Journal reported extensively on a lawsuit brought against senior members of the University of Kentucky’s administration and the administration of Governor Matthew Bevin by Dr. Raynor Mullins, a distinguished senior member of the faculty of the School of Dentistry at UK. The lawsuit alleges that Dr. Mullins was fired from his non-tenured faculty position in retaliation for comments that were critical of Gov. Bevin’s plans to reshape Kentucky Medicaid– a plan intended to considerably reduce the number of Medicaid beneficiaries and cut back on benefits, including dental services. The lawsuit names as defendants “Mark Birdwhistell, UK’s Vice President of Administration for UK HealthCare; Dr. Stephanos Kyrkanides, Dean of the UK College of Dentistry; and ‘John Doe,’ described as an official in the Bevin administration.” (Dr. Birdwhistell is a major architect of Gov. Benin’s healthcare plan.) The story was picked up by the Associated Press and is appearing across the country. What is happening in Lexington is relevant to the accreditation status of the University of Louisville and the reputation of our Commonwealth.

It is claimed that the dismissal resulted from considerable pressure from the Governor’s office where someone was “pissed off” by the criticism. A statement from the Governor’s office seems to deny any role or knowledge of matters mentioned in the lawsuit, but then again that office denied any role in the cancellation of the patient transfer agreement between University of Louisville Hospital and women’s healthcare facilities in Louisville that provide reproductive services including abortion.

The accounts presented in the lawsuit appear credible, refer to seemingly frank admissions from UK officials of where the ‘pressure’ was coming from, imply many witnesses, and are consistent with what in my opinion is the authoritative management style of the Governor’s office. It is highly likely that the truth will eventually emerge when people are questioned under oath. I urge people to read the complaint and previous reporting available at the  Courier-Journal, as well future formal responses coming from UK and Frankfort. This is serious business.

The University of Louisville, its community, and the SACS accreditation organization that placed the University of Louisville on probation last December because of concerns largely related to the independence of University governance from political interference, should be concerned. Faculty at all of Kentucky’s state universities should be feeling a chilly breeze emanating from this lawsuit. To whom are they accountable? Are they not able to express their professional opinions in a respectful way without fear of retaliation?

There will be more to be said about this matter in the coming weeks but the facts are not likely to be settled for months if not for a year or more. My recommendation to SACS is not to rush its final decision about releasing the University of Louisville from probation until this and the increasing concerns it has raised are clarified and resolved to its independent satisfaction. The position of SACS on this and other recent manipulations of University governance, independence, and accountability will ultimately have the largest effect on the outcome of ongoing political capture of our state Universities. My guess is that UofL authorities will ask SACS to release it from probation now. In my opinion, to approve the current situation by withdrawing probation at this time gives tacit approval to the status quo, and will expose University governance to inappropriate increasing political manipulation for many years to come.

When I was a designated lobbyist for the University of Louisville, it was made clear to me by more than one government official or legislator that they considered the University of Louisville to be a state agency subject to full-cooperation if not obedience to their demands. This is the crucial issue in this matter. In my opinion and that of others who have followed the matter closely, Gov. Bevin has manipulated his Postsecondary (Trustee) Nominating Committee, the governance structure of Kentucky’s state universities, and more specifically the UofL Board of Trustees to bring them more directly under his personal control to advance his political and religious agendas. Because of fear of retaliation, it appears to me that he has cowed the administrations of both our flagship Universities which reasonably might fear retaliation. Universities do not “protect themselves” in either the short or long terms by rolling over to political pressure. In the short term they lose their credibility, and in the long term they invite further political intervention.

The fundamental question that will be raised in judicial and other public consideration of the firing of Dr. Mullins is: “Who do our Universities and their faculties work for? From whom do they take their orders? Who decides on what they are allowed to say?” I believe Kentucky’s Universities need some help to stand up against this assault on longstanding academic values that have served higher education well. SACS may be Kentucky’s best hope to bring both truth and accountability into this and more general discussion about the role of our public universities in Kentucky.

Respectfully,
Peter Hasselbacher, MD
Emeritus Professor of Medicine, UofL
Kentucky Health Policy Institute
August 6, 2017

Louisville’s Human Organ Transplant Program Stagnates As Lexington’s Grows

Financial and operational stresses at Jewish Hospital likely to be taking a toll on one of the headline partnerships between the Hospital and the University of Louisville. Increasing dependence on Medicaid patients and a blossoming load of uncompensated care may be blocking access for the medically indigent and recipients of color for at least some solid organ transplants such as heart and liver.


Since the middle 1980s when I came to Louisville, Jewish Hospital has branded itself as a high tech “Heart Hospital.” It promotes the early adoption of high-technology. Indeed, a few years ago it received a special designation as a heart hospital in Kentucky from U.S. News & World Report that it would not have received had it not had a cardiac transplant program. In the middle 1990s, the University of Louisville formally shifted the private practice activities of its cardiologists to Jewish Hospital. The transplant surgeons at Jewish, to my knowledge, all have formal University faculty appointments. Jewish Hospital and the University of Kentucky Hospital are the only two hospitals in the state with a Certificate of Need (CON) for adult human solid-organ transplantation. (The University of Louisville does not own this CON for transplant.) Accordingly, this high-profile program is both important for, and a marker of the institutional health of both Louisville institutions.

For this and for other reasons, I have been writing about Kentucky’s transplant programs for the last few years. Most medical schools with a major clinical medical center consider having a transplant program as an important part of their service profile. I became concerned that although in the 1990s through 2010, Jewish Hospital performed the most such organ transplants in Kentucky, that a steadily-growing UK program overtook our own as early as 2010. My academic pride was injured. My concern included that a weakening Jewish Hospital was losing the resources or the will to continue this important program. It is after all an expensive undertaking.

Frankly more troubling to me was additional proof confirming that without high-end medical insurance, transplants were effectively being denied to the poor or uninsured even as their organs were accepted for the use of others. In the early 2000’s, I confirmed that Jewish Hospital would not accept a Medicare patient for transplant. An analysis by me in 2015 confirmed that in Louisville and elsewhere, ones financial or socioeconomic status limited ability to receive a transplant. I termed this practice the “Reverse Robin Hood” approach to of human organ transplantation.” Organs were being harvested from the poor for use by the rich. Harsh words indeed, but compatible with the frankly racist heritage of our medical system here and elsewhere in which the poor or people of color have been segregated to a single hospital that few others seemed willing to use. (I have met older doctors who told me of racially segregated wards in the old Louisville General.)

The future of Louisville’s transplantation program is undoubtedly one of the major issues to be dealt with as KentuckyOne Health and Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI) sell off both of their acute care hospitals and their outpatient medical centers in Louisville. The CON is itself an asset that will be part of the sale of Jewish Hospital – should that hospital be sold or remain as an acute care hospital. I therefore went back into the truly massive collection of data related to transplantation maintained by the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), and its associated Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network. In brief, what I learned is that since 2008, when both programs were doing the same number of transplants overall, that Jewish Hospital is at best treading water and UK is booming. I am concerned that the number of heart transplants done in Louisville is low enough that surgical teams may not be getting enough practice, that the procedures cannot be done cost effectively, or that accreditation may be in jeopardy. In 2016, the last year for which complete data is available, only ten heart transplants were done– none of them to black recipients. I will present and discuss the data below, but I have grave concern about the relationship between socioeconomic class and access to healthcare. I do not know what our Louisville healthcare landscape will look like when the departure of KentuckyOne Health is complete, but perpetuating a dual standard of care would be an anathema to me– and should be to all of us. In all of this, I venture no opinion about the quality of surgical outcomes, nor how traffic flows (or not) through the waiting lists, but data is available that can address those aspects. Continue reading “Louisville’s Human Organ Transplant Program Stagnates As Lexington’s Grows”

Fiduciary Audit of UofL Foundation Looks Really Really Grim

Just got 269 pages of documents with a summary.

The summary supports previous claims of major financial mismanagement– if not worse. Oversight by Foundation Board was feeble if not inadequate. Ramsey supporters, enablers, and apologists, and  shares blame with former President Ramsey and other University executives. The so-called elite, chardonnay swilling, trouble makers who dared rock the boast and ask questions are vindicated in spades.

You can read the executive summary here.

Statements by current UofL President and Chairs of UofL Trustees and Foundation affirm their commitment to transparency and emphasize that the report reflects the management of previous administrations and boards.

Bad enough to put people in jail or to claw-back money?  We’ll have to see.

More when I dig into the details.

Here is a copy of the entire document. (6.7 MB)  What do you see that sticks out as either good or bad?

Peter Hasselbacher, MD
President, KHPI
8 June 2017
4:50 pm

Catholic Health Initiatives Gives Investors an Update: Substantial Challenges Ongoing.

Senior executives from Catholic health initiatives (CHI) hosted a webcast and teleconference on May 31 to respond to questions about their FY17 3d Quarter Fiscal report. My colleagues at Insider Louisville have already commented on the update. You can read the slides that accompanied the presentation yourself. The following items were particularly significant to my listening.

1. Except that it was going to occur on July 1, nothing was said about the transfer of University of Louisville Hospital back to University control. Successful relationships with academic medical centers including at Baylor and Creighton were claimed.

2. Little was said about the sale of assets in Kentucky other than the process was “evolving,” that the company was moving with its advisors, that there is “a fair amount of interest,” and that they were “moving as quickly as possible” and “ready to move forward.” However, there has been no release of a Request For Purchase (RFP) so apparently no formal process has yet begun. I have no feeling on how rapidly things are moving or not. I suspect it will be challenging to find buyers for all the properties, certainly all at one group.

CHI will focus on regrouping around its “Legacy Lexington” facilities. I interpret this to imply that those hospitals are not currently on the chopping block. Where KentuckyOne will keep its administrative headquarters was not mentioned at this level of discussion. Continue reading “Catholic Health Initiatives Gives Investors an Update: Substantial Challenges Ongoing.”

Catholic Health Initiatives Third Quarter Financial Report, FY 2017

Is it good enough to turn the tide for CHI?

Catholic Health Initiatives released today its most recent quarterly report covering the first 9 months ending March 31, 2017. Making sense out of the raw financial numbers is for me probably like having a banker decipher a complicated clinical trial or biochemical research paper. I will leave it to the financial experts to explain it to us. To my first pass and naive evaluation, it looks like CHI is hanging on, but not improving to the extent needed to deal with its $8.8 Billion dept. I suspect this is not going to help their bond rating very much. This report reveals much about why CHI is taking the drastic downsizing actions in Kentucky that we are now seeing unroll. This may be an existential move for the company.

At the end of this article, I show extracted verbatim text from the report that I think will be of interest to us here in Louisville and Kentucky. You can read the full report yourself here.

In summary:

• It is very clear that KentuckyOne Health is the weak sister of the CHI regions.

•In Louisville, University Medical Center (UMC) making a profit. (This is not the same as University of Louisville Hospital, is it?) On dissolution of the UofL partnership. CHI expects to incur a loss of $279.4 million, but I have no understanding what that means. Who can help us?

•CHI hopes to close on its facilities that have been designated for sale by the end of 2017. Those facilities lost $61 million in the first three quarters. The estimated total assets for the KentuckyOne operations being divested as of March 31 2017 is $534.9 million. KentuckyOne/CHI hopes to complete the sale(s) by the end of the year.

•The possible merger with Dignity is not a sure thing.

•CHI has been selling other of its physical assets to raise money to the tune of over $1 billion in gross proceeds. (Does this go to its current bottom line and make matters look better in the current year?) It now must pay rent to the new owners of $52.7 million yearly.

•KentuckyOne Health won its first few cases in the litigation over unnecessary angioplasties in St. Joseph London, but began to lose the most recent cases with high monetary verdicts. Settlements are now being made for at least some cases. I suspect this is not going to be cheap.

What does the statement say to you? I expect many others in the business world are going to help us tomorrow. If I have made mistakes in reading this report, help me fix them.

Peter Hasselbacher, MD
President, KHPI
Emeritus Professor of Medicine, UofL
May 19, 2017 Continue reading “Catholic Health Initiatives Third Quarter Financial Report, FY 2017”

KentuckyOne Health To Sell Its Major Assets In Louisville.

Beginning last Thursday, word began trickling out to journalists and the public that KentuckyOne Health, a major regional unit of Catholic Health Initiatives (CHI), was preparing to announce plans to sell almost all its hospitals and medical centers in Louisville and a handful elsewhere in the state. I had been told earlier in the week that the announcement would be made today, Monday, but there were so many leaks that KentuckyOne sent an email to its employees outlining its plans.  I presume KentuckyOne wanted take control of the message before the reportage dam broke. The email can be read here.

For those of us in Louisville, the only major facility not being sold is Our Lady of Peace, a psychiatric hospital.  Both of KentuckyOne’s acute care hospitals, (Jewish Hospital and Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Hospital), the Frazier Rehabilitation Institute, and all four outpatient Medical Centers (Jewish East, South, Southwest, and Northeast) are on the chopping block. Nearby Jewish Hospital Shelbyville, which recently underwent a critical review by the Inspector General for an EMTALA violation, is also for sale.  KentuckyOne employs many physicians. The fate of individual owned- or contracted medical practices in Louisville and elsewhere is not clear to me from the email. Continue reading “KentuckyOne Health To Sell Its Major Assets In Louisville.”

FDA Panel Finds Opana-ER Not Worth The Risk!

Opana ER is the brand name of the specific extended release preparation of oxymorphone HCL marketed by Endo Pharmaceuticals, Inc.  This was the drug of choice that underlay the explosion of opioid addiction and of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis infections in intravenous users in nearby Scott County, Indiana.  Opana is back in the news, but not in a good way for Endo.  The FDA assembled an expert review panel last week to opine on whether the benefits of Opana ER outweighed its risk to its users.  The short summary of its findings and recommendations is that the benefits do not outweigh the risks, and that the drug’s continued marketing should be controlled in a variety of possible ways including removal from the market, or restrictions on who can prescribe it and under what conditions.

To summarize the findings of the article below, Opana ER is not a big player in the prescription opioid market in any event.  Its active ingredient, oxymorphone,  is manufactured or distributed in the US by at least 19 different companies but fills less than 1% of opioid prescriptions.  (I must admit up front that have no idea who actually makes what pills or where the active ingredient in the various preparations comes from.) A detailed list of individual versions of oxymorphone by NDC from the labelers below is available here. (or here as Excel file.) It occurs to me as I see such long lists of labeler names, that with so many ways for a drug to enter the community, opportunities for diversion from supervised distribution become correspondingly more numerous. Given all the apparent distributors, is it even possible for an Endo or a Mallinckrodt to know where the drugs they might manufacture end up? Mallinckrodt in particular has been accused of not keeping very good track at all, at least in Florida. Continue reading “FDA Panel Finds Opana-ER Not Worth The Risk!”

Newest Proposed Treatment for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy Abruptly Changes Hands.

Less than one month after our exploration of the recent colossal price markup of a simple drug used by a vulnerable and desperate group of children and their families, a dramatic turn of events occurred which may make things better or worse. In February, the pharmaceutical company Marathon announced its marketing plans for Emflaza, its brand name for deflazacort, a simple corticosteroid widely available in other countries but not in the United States. Emflaza had recently been approved by the FDA for the treatment of symptoms of Duchenne muscular dystrophy (Duchenne MD) in the United States.   Duchenne MD is a usually fatal genetic muscular disorder of young boys for which no curative therapy is currently available, but for which corticosteroids such as deflazacort and prednisone slow the progression of weakness.  Deflazacort– the most commonly prescribed all-purpose steroid in some countries– has been used in Canada and elsewhere for the treatment of Duchenne MD for some time.  The wrinkle in Marathon’s release was that it declared an annual charge of $89,000 per child for a drug sold in many other countries for a price a measured in pennies instead of dollars.

I have already expressed my puzzlement that the FDA gave its approval to Marathon based on clinical data collected many years old by another drug company that for undisclosed reasons walked away from FDA approval. I am still looking for reliable studies that confirm that deflazacort is superior to, or safer than prednisone to treat Duchenne MD. [Prednisone is the most prescribed corticosteroid in the United States. To say that it is inexpensive would be an exaggeration!]  Perhaps a clinician without ties to the pharmaceutical industry will provide us with evidence-based data that Emflaza is an essential or even a better drug for Duchenne MD, or worth the monumental cost for any incremental benefit.

Continue reading “Newest Proposed Treatment for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy Abruptly Changes Hands.”

Is Emflaza the Latest Drug Pricing Rip-off or Not?

New Money from Old Drugs.  Are children with muscular dystrophy being served by the free market or taken advantage of?

I suspect that it is just because people are paying attention, but reports of unexplainably excessive pricing of both new and old drugs keep coming too fast to keep up with. I recently published a list of 447 drugs whose prices doubled or more between 2011 to 2015. Even that list was incomplete!  This week’s prize winner is Emflaza, a drug that was recently approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to treat Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD).

The price proposed by Marathon Pharmaceutical, LLC is $89,000 per patient per year. We may be getting desensitized to such patient-bankrupting offerings, but what makes Emflaza stand out from the offending crowd is that in Canada, where some of the original research appears to have been done, the same drug for the same disorder costs a dollar a pill or less.  As noted in the Wall Street Journal, the price set by Marathon is 50 to 70 times what most U.S. patients currently pay to buy the drug (illegally?) from on-line pharmacies in the United Kingdom.  The more I learned about Emflaza, the more troubled I became.  Allow me to share some of my discomfiture with you. Continue reading “Is Emflaza the Latest Drug Pricing Rip-off or Not?”

Should Kentucky Physician Assistants Prescribe Controlled Substances?

Kentucky’s high rates of opioid prescription must be reduced before even more prescribers are added. National data suggest that adding Physician Assistants to the prescribing mix is unlikely to reduce the number of opioid prescriptions written. 

Louisville’s Courier-Journal this week featured an opinion piece by Andrew Rutherford, President of the Kentucky Academy of Physician Assistants, advocating for the passage of Kentucky Senate Bill 55 which would authorize physician assistants in Kentucky to prescribe controlled substances. Emphasizing the stakes involved in the proposal, articles later in the week reported on the latest rash of opioid overdoses in our region– presumably due to the inevitable fentanyl-enhanced “bad batch” of heroin.  Several on-line commenters to the second articles suggested that since those who overdosed had made their own risky-decisions, that they should be permitted to suffer the consequences without an intervention of attempted resuscitation. It is suggested that this Darwinian mechanism would ease the opioid abuse problem.  Unfortunately however, among the personal choices leading to opioid addiction is the choice to visit a licensed healthcare professional who, with good intentions or not, prescribes opioids.  Once an individual becomes addicted, the concept of “choice” become irrelevant.  A reasonable question to be asked is, “Do we really need to put more opioids in the hands of Kentuckians?  My answer would be an emphatic no. Continue reading “Should Kentucky Physician Assistants Prescribe Controlled Substances?”