California Watch
A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting
Health and Welfare
March 17, 2011 | Lance Williams

Citing a California Watch story, a state Senate leader has called for a public health investigation into “alarming” malnutrition rates among Medicare patients at the Prime Healthcare hospital chain.

Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, who is chair of the Senate Health Committee, says he wants the state Department of Public Health to determine whether Prime has identified a malnutrition crisis among seniors – or whether the 14-hospital chain is filing bogus malnutrition claims to get enhanced payments from Medicare.

“Whether Prime-operated hospitals have discovered large, untreated pockets of extremely severe malnutrition among California seniors, or whether they are overbilling seniors and the Medicare program, the extraordinary numbers need to be understood,” Hernandez wrote in a March 9 letter to Dr. Howard Backer, interim state health director.

He asked Backer to investigate Prime and delay issuing new operating licenses to Prime until the probe is complete.

“Californians ought to be able to trust our hospitals, our medical records and that our care reflects the medical judgment of our health care providers – and nothing else,” he also wrote.

A spokesman for the senator said the health department has not replied to the letter. Asked for comment, a Prime spokesman forwarded a March 7 press release denying that the chain has unusually high malnutrition rates. “Prime Healthcare’s Medicare patients are within the normal range when compared to similar hospitals across the state,” the press release said, citing its own study of Medicare billing data.

On Feb. 20, California Watch reported that Prime hospitals in Shasta and San Bernardino counties had reported extremely high rates of a nutritional disorder called Kwashiorkor syndrome among Medicare patients in 2009.

The illness almost exclusively afflicts impoverished children during famines in the Third World, but Medicare billing data shows Prime was reporting the ailment among older patients in Redding and Victorville, the story said.

The story also quoted state records showing that in 2009, Prime claimed that about 25 percent of its Medicare patients suffered from some form of malnutrition, triple the state average.

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