Let's face it: Americans have the worst health-care system money can buy. Its main goal is not to provide care but to ensure profits. And the only real check on abuse is the concern that some providers have about bad PR.
Just ask David Peterson.
In the early morning hours of Oct. 24, 2008, the Madison resident went to the emergency room at St. Mary's with a foreign object in his eye. He was examined by Dr. Elizabeth Tumpach, who, he says, couldn't find anything and sent him home "with the same indications and discomfort as when I entered."
Peterson, who teaches accounting at MATC, endured "13 more hours of agony" until he got in to see his optometrist, who promptly removed a speck of wood from his eye, purportedly commenting on how easy it was to find.
In a letter to St. Mary's dated Nov. 1, Peterson preemptively disputed any charges for his ER visit, given the additional suffering he endured for want of "competent treatment." The letter drew no response.
Peterson's insurer, WPS, to his mind "caved in," paying St. Mary's $768 bill, minus his $100 co-pay for an ER visit. Meanwhile, the optometrist charged just $78 to fix the problem, which WPS also covered.
In early March, Peterson got a bill from St. Mary's, saying he needed to pay up. He called the hospital and was told that it never received his letter. He filed a consumer complaint against St. Mary's with the state, writing: "This is a classic case of billing for a service that was not received."
Peterson also sent an email to Dr. Tumpach, who works for Madison Emergency Physicians, a separate entity that provides ER services to St. Mary's. It explained his intention to file a complaint against her with the state Medical Examining Board. But he was first giving her several days, until March 24, to address his concerns.
Tumpach did not respond - at least not to Peterson (see next item). But on March 24 at 5:05 p.m., less than two hours after Isthmus contacted St. Mary's seeking its perspective on the case, Peterson got an email from Christine Modena, St. Mary's director of emergency services, promising to look into the matter.
Last Friday, Modena informed Peterson via email that it was all a big misunderstanding: "After we received your concerns last November, it was our intention to forgive your portion of the bill. Unfortunately, there was some miscommunication, and that message was not delivered to our business services office...."
St. Mary's spokesman Steve Van Dinter says Madison Emergency Physicians' failure to relay its decision came to light due to Isthmus' inquiry: "We discovered it thanks to you guys contacting us."
What makes Van Dinter believe this explanation was not concocted after the fact? "I'm taking the word of our doctors," he says. And why, if everyone agreed Peterson should not have to pay, was WPS still hit up for $668? Van Dinter says that's because Peterson was found to have received "appropriate care." Oh.
Peterson has his own theory about what happened, relayed in a response email to Modena. He believes the hospital and its providers simply ignored his complaint, expecting he would just give up, as most people do, and changed gears only after he pressed the issue with the media and state.
"With your ability to do a cover-up, your talents are wasted at St. Mary's," he told Modena. "You should go into politics!"
But wait, there's more
Last Sunday evening, at about 9 p.m., David Peterson got an email from Officer Tanner W. Gerstner of the UW-Madison campus police, apprising him that Dr. Tumpach had considered his email "threatening and personal." The email advised Peterson not to contact her again, lest it "warrant further investigation on my behalf [sic]."
Peterson, in reply, said there was nothing threatening or otherwise inappropriate about his sole email to Tumpach. "When I cannot write a letter to a vendor with whom I have conducted business without interference from the police, something is radically wrong," he wrote. "We need more people like me writing letters in an attempt to hold doctors and [other professionals including] police accountable."
Gerstner did not respond to an inquiry from Isthmus.
State worker bonuses get in under the wire
The other day someone claiming to be "Deep Throat" (helpfully clarified as "not my real name") left a letter and a floppy disc at Isthmus. The letter called negative attention to the final round of employee bonuses dispensed by the state of Wisconsin in the final quarter of 2008; the disc contained a list of recipients.
"You'll recall that [Gov. Jim] Doyle announced in late November that [the state] would eliminate these payments," wrote Mr. or Ms. Throat. "Seems like a lot of them got in just under the wire."
The list itemizes "discretionary compensation awards" - bonuses - to 82 state employees, including the UW System. A few are lump-sum payments: $1,000 here, $500 there, $3,150 to one UW-Madison supervisor for "new duties." But most are per-hour salary adjustments for merit, equity, new duties and retention that extend permanently into the future. AIG execs, eat your heart out.
One of the highest hikes, a $3.42 per hour bump (more than $7,000 a year), went to state labor relations manager Kathleen Kopp, for "equity/retention." She now makes $101,957 per year. Deep Throat finds this "galling" because Kopp is "in charge of contract negotiations with state employee unions," where the goal is said to be a two-year wage freeze.
Jenny Donnelly, director of the Office of State Employment Relations, where Kopp works, calls this pay hike "a retention bonus," offered because Kopp had been "recruited to leave" at higher pay by another state agency. One way or the other, Kopp was destined for higher pay.
Donnelly says the cutoff for bonuses was Nov. 23, three days after Doyle issued his directive. That means employees like Kopp got upward salary adjustments that will continue year after year while someone scheduled for a pay bump on, say, Nov. 24, got zilch. Isn't that a wee bit unfair?
Maybe, but Donnelly says "nobody has raised that with me." These state workers are a stoic lot.
Cutting them a break
Middle-school students attending a summer enrichment course in zoology through Madison School & Community Recreation (MSCR) will no longer have a live rat in the classroom or dissect other critters.
Lisa Wachtel, the school district's executive director of teaching and learning, confirms the decision was made after concerns were raised by the animal rights group PETA. Upon review, "We didn't feel it was a good way to introduce" younger students to this subject area.
And while live animals and dissection are still part of other Madison course offerings, Lynn Pauly of the local Alliance for Animals is pleased MSCR has cut out the cutting in this course.
"Humane educational tools and methods have proven as good as, and usually superior to, the old ways of teaching biology," she says. "It's a win-win result for the students and the animals."