Columbia’s Sex Abuse Cover-Up Tops This Year’s Shkreli Awards

Derick Alison
Derick Alison
9 Min Read

A top New York hospital that long shielded an ob/gyn from complaints of sexual abuse and a large non-profit Catholic health system that paid its CEO $35.5 million for one year topped this year’s “Shkreli awards” from the Lown Institute.

An Indiana cardiologist accused of misdiagnosing patients, prescribing drugs they didn’t need, and allegedly unnecessarily placed as many as 80-90 stents in one patient also made this list of the most ignominious examples of healthcare greed or incompetence.

Named after “pharma bro” Martin Shkreli, who raised the price of a life-saving AIDS drug from $13.50 to $750 per pill and went to prison for securities fraud, the annual ranking seeks to highlight individuals and institutions seen as the year’s “worst examples of profiteering and dysfunction” in healthcare.

“When you see all these stories in one place, they stop being anecdotes and start to tell a bigger story,” Lown Institute president Vikas Saini, MD, said in a press release. “The need for more fairness and integrity in U.S. healthcare couldn’t be clearer.”

The judges include patient advocates, health policy experts, clinicians, and journalists.

This year’s full list, along with key details, ranks as follows:

1. Although more than 245 patients alleged that Columbia University ob/gyn Robert Hadden, MD, abused them, Columbia failed to hand over subpoenaed evidence and referred patients with new complaints to their general counsel rather than the district attorney. The institution also let Hadden return to practice within a week of his arrest, as long as he had a chaperone, according to the report.

Hadden was sentenced to 20 years in prison, according to a ProPublica story, after “a long, arduous process that Columbia often undermined.”

Columbia agreed to pay $236.5 million in lawsuits brought by 226 of Hadden’s victims but admitted no fault as it placed blame on Hadden. But according to ProPublica‘s reporting, the university “waited months to tell his patents that he was no longer working, and then sent a matter-of-fact letter that omitted the reason.”

2. The largest Catholic healthcare system in the nation, CommonSpirit Health, is a tax-exempt non-profit. But what it did with its revenues was extremely profitable for its CEO Lloyd Dean, who in 2021 received $35.5 million in pay, according to an investigation by STAT.

That largesse was more than twice what was paid to the CEO of the largest for-profit health system, and raises questions about how such non-profit organizations justify their tax-exempt status. Lown suggested that CommonSpirit could have used the money to help patients, such as forgiving medical debt or assisting with affordable housing projects.

3. With millions of Americans struggling to pay costs of necessary prescription drugs, at least nine pharmaceutical companies or trade organizations are fighting the Inflation Reduction Act’s provision that allows CMS to negotiate lower drug prices.

The drug companies claim the law violates their First, Fifth, or Eighth Amendment rights. Lown judge Carole Allen, past president of the Massachusetts Medical Society, said the companies’ pushback is “pharma acting like 2-year-olds when they cannot have their way. Shame on them.”

4. Hospitals that have gotten in bed with private equity-backed companies that offer medical credit cards, whose attractive interest-free introductory periods end with rates as high as 26%, took fourth place.

A KFF Health News report singled out North Carolina’s Atrium Health, Minnesota’s Allina Health, and in California, Chino Valley Medical Center, for offering such promotions that could leave patients in dire financial straits. Now, some 100,000 University of North Carolina patients that were in no-interest payment plans are now enrolled in AccessOne plans, “with almost half of them at the highest rate offered,” the Lown Institute said.

Saini, one of the judges, called the practice an example of “hospitals joining the banks in the stampede back to the feudal era where people are pinned down by usury.”

5. James McGuckin, MD, who had been disciplined by medical boards in a dozen states and was deprived of privileges at multiple hospitals for performing unnecessary vascular surgeries, was the fifth Shkreli winner.

ProPublica and the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that despite his repetitive track record, McGuckin continued to practice in his network of vascular clinics. The story documented that some of McGuckin’s patients experienced severe harm; two lost legs and several nearly lost their lives.

6. Though GlaxoSmithKline knew its heartburn medication Zantac could form a dangerous carcinogenic compound, the company withheld a key FDA study and downplayed the issue, according to Bloomberg. An analyst’s report says GSK will settle the damage cases for around $5 billion.

Lown judge Allen Frances, MD, who helmed an edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, likened GSK’s stance to “a code of ethics and concern about customer safety that closely resembles the practice of drug cartels.”

7. Indiana cardiologist Edward Harlamert, MD, unnecessarily inserted stents — as many as 80 to 90 in a single patient, according to a report by WTHR.

Lown judge Gary Schwitzer, former editor of HealthNewsReview.org, called Harlamert’s case “An unbelievable example of the absence of oversight.”

8. Despite a California law that prohibits hospitals from dumping homeless people to the streets upon discharge, the practice continues, according to a San Diego Union-Tribune report. And in Kentucky, TV station WAVE captured a senior lying on the sidewalk across from a hospital in 36-degree weather. Those were among numerous reports on hospitals’ practices of unsafe discharge.

Lown judge Gregg Gonsalves, PhD, of Yale School of Public Health, noted, “No insurance, no money, no problem. We’ve got a dumpster for you behind the hospital.”

9. Rodney White, MD, a Harbor UCLA Medical Center surgeon, convinced a patient to have an experimental $15,000 Medtronic device implanted even though it may not have been appropriate for her condition, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times. She suffered a stroke.

Lown judge Susan Rogers, MD, immediate past president of Physicians for a National Health Program, said the story is “Another horrific example of how easy it is to get away with taking advantage of the poor and minorities without any punishment whatsoever.”

10. Lehigh Valley Health’s Cedar Crest Hospital told the family of an undocumented comatose patient that it could select among three options and had 48 hours to decide: pay $500 per day for home equipment, find another facility, or consent to deportation to the Dominican Republic, according to a story in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Lown judge Victor Montori, MD, a Mayo Clinic endocrinology researcher, said “Cruelty is like wrong-sided surgery. It has to be a never event.”

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    Cheryl Clark has been a medical & science journalist for more than three decades.

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