Why would a hospital keep a brain-damaged patient on life support in a vegetative state for months, without so much as talking with the patient’s relatives to ascertain the family’s wishes for their loved one? Because government regulations encouraged them to do just that.
ProPublica recently profiled a pattern of troubling cases at Newark Beth Israel hospital. In several cases, physicians admitted they kept patients alive to bolster their statistics in government databases, and prevent a potential closure of the hospital’s transplant unit. The sorry tale shows but some of the perverse consequences of government-run health care—a system that the left wants to force on all Americans.
Brain-Damaged Patient Artificially Kept Alive
The ProPublica story centers around Darryl Young, a 61-year-old patient who spent months in Newark Beth Israel’s intensive care unit:
After suffering from congestive heart failure for years, Young, a Navy veteran and former truck driver with three children, had received a heart transplant on Sept. 21, 2018. He didn’t wake up after the operation and had been in a vegetative state ever since.
Machines whirred in his room, pumping air into his lungs. Nutrients and fluids dripped from a tube into his stomach. Young had always been fastidious, but now his hair and toenails had grown long. A nurse suctioned mucus from his throat several times a day to keep him from choking, according to employees familiar with his care. His medical record would note: ‘He follows no commands. He looks very encephalopathic’—brain damaged.
On one day this April, physicians at Newark Beth Israel discussed what to do about their brain damaged, and severely injured, patient. When asked about Young, the head of the hospital’s transplant team, Mark Zucker, had a blunt response: “Need to keep him alive ‘til June 30 at a minimum.”
Zucker went on, instructing hospital staff not to raise the option of palliative care—that is, a less aggressive treatment course focused more on alleviating pain—until the one-year anniversary of Young’s transplant in September.
“It’s not as if they’re asking for this and we’re saying no, we cannot do this,” another physician said, according to a recording of the meeting. “We haven’t refused anything they’ve asked,” Zucker agreed in talking of the family’s wishes. “We just haven’t raised withdrawing” intensive treatment.
Unethical Behavior to Meet Government Targets
In the April meeting, Zucker admitted that “I’m not sure this” behavior by the hospital “is ethical, moral, or right.” So why did he deliberately keep Young’s family in the dark about his condition? To meet government-imposed targets.
Beginning in 2007, as ProPublica notes, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) set quality standards for organ transplants:
Under those rules, the one-year survival rate has been ‘the magic number,’ according to Laura Aguiar, principal of consulting firm Transplant Solutions. If a program’s survival rate fell too far under its expected rate, which was calculated by a CMS algorithm, the agency could launch an audit. If the audit uncovered serious problems, CMS could pull a program’s Medicare certification, meaning that the federal health care insurer would stop reimbursing for transplants.
A hospital losing its Medicare certification could lead to the end of its transplant program, as many private insurers will only pay for procedures performed at Medicare-certified hospitals. With heart transplant survival rates already below the national averages, Newark Beth Israel feared the potential consequences of an audit if its numbers fell any further.
As a result, the hospital’s doctors decided to keep patients like Young alive to prop up its federal rankings. They took those actions without consulting Young’s family, and even though they believed Young would “never wake up or recover function.”
Hid Information from Relatives
The ProPublica story chronicles the ways Newark Beth Israel staff kept information from Young’s family. Physicians waited for three weeks after his heart transplant to tell Young’s sister Andrea that he had suffered brain damage during the procedure. Even then, by telling his sister that “just a very small part of each section” of the brain had suffered damage, they gave the family “false hope.”
Despite the damage to Young’s brain during the procedure, doctors never initiated a conversation with the family about options for care, such as hospice, given his poor prognosis for recovery. They failed to inform Andrea Young that her brother had contracted a dangerous drug-resistant fungal infection. During this time, Andrea also struggled to ensure the hospital staff provided basic grooming; she recounted that it took four months—four months—for staff to trim her brother’s toenails.
All the while, doctors knew they were violating their ethical duty to Darryl Young, by failing to obtain informed consent for his care. But they felt that Young and his family needed to “take one for the team”—incur more pain and heartache so the hospital could meet government targets. As transplant director Mark Zucker explained in a meeting:
This is a very, very unethical, immoral but unfortunately very practical situation, because the reality here is that you haven’t saved anybody if your program gets shut down….This guy unfortunately became the seventh potential death in a very bad year, alright, and that puts us into a very difficult spot.
Sadly, Darryl Young does not represent the only instance where Newark Beth Israel purposefully tried to boost their targets to meet government standards. ProPublica uncovered other instances where patients were kept alive, or their hospital discharge delayed, until one year after surgery. Notes in another patient’s files indicate that “he will remain hospitalized…to hit his one year anniversary.”
Government-Run Care Betrays the Vulnerable
Like the scandal in the Veterans Administration several years ago, the situation at Newark Beth Israel shows how government bureaucracy can result in horrific patient care. As ProPublica chronicled in painful detail, the doctors in that hospital have spent much of their energy “teaching to the test”—working to comply with government-imposed targets, rather than ensuring their patients receive top-quality care.
Poor examples of government-run health care abound. As I recently noted, the United States suffers from an antiquated kidney care system—with a much smaller percentage of patients receiving at-home dialysis than a country like Guatemala—because Medicare has covered most patients with kidney disease since 1973, and the government-run program has failed to innovate since then. In the Newark Beth Israel case, an arbitrary target imposed by a government agency more than a decade ago led to patients being kept alive simply to meet that target.
Patients like Darryl Young deserve better than the care Newark Beth Israel provided to him. They also deserve better than the government-run health care that the left wants to impose on all Americans.