It’s amazing how running across a random news story can open doors you never knew existed. A couple days ago I was flipping through the Downtown News web site and I came across an editorial dealing with the closure of the Pacific Alliance Medical Center (PAMC). I’d never heard of it before, but the article made clear that shuttering the facility was a major problem for the low-income Asians, Latinos and Blacks that live in the area. Local politicians were apparently talking to County and State officials to try to find other healthcare options for the community.
Like I said, a week ago I didn’t even know PAMC existed. After a few hours of surfing the net, I’d read enough to realize that this facility wasn’t just a crucial part of the local healthcare network. It had also played an important role in the City’s history. It began as a laudable effort by 19th century Angelenos to care for the people of the community. Sadly, it seems to have ended as a result of the greed and dishonesty that plague our healthcare system.
It was a surprise to me that back in 1860 there was a significant French community living in what we now call Downtown. When it became clear that LA’s first hospital, St. Vincent’s, couldn’t provide care for the growing population, local leaders banded together to form the French Benevolent Society. In time they acquired some land at what is now the corner of College and Hill, and built the first version of the French Hospital. The lovely building that stands there today is much larger than the original structure. It was expanded and remodelled a few times over the years. According to the LA Conservancy, architects W. S. Garrett (1916), Armand Monaco (1926 remodel), and R. C. Nielsen (1964 remodel and expansion) were among those involved. If you want to learn more about the history of LA’s early French community and the origins of the hospital, here’s a link to the blog Frenchtown Confidential.
The hospital has been operating continuously since it was founded, but in the 80s it ran into financial trouble and was acquired by a group of doctors and investors. That’s when it became the Pacific Alliance Medical Center. By that time it had become a crucial resource for the Chinatown community, serving the local Asian, Latino and Black population. It offered healthcare to thousands of low-income residents who were covered by Medicare and Medicaid. Also important, staff at PAMC spoke a variety of languages that enabled them to communicate with patients who spoke little or no English.
Fast forward to fall of 2017. In early October PAMC abruptly announced that the hospital would be shutting down. The owners claimed that they were closing the facility because it didn’t comply with seismic safety requirements, and said they couldn’t afford to build a new structure. PAMC was shut down on November 30. With less than two months notice, the patients who had been receiving care there had to find other doctors, and over 500 employees were out of a job. Here’s the editorial from the Downtown News that makes clear what a hardship this is for the community.
The owners claimed they closed the place because they couldn’t afford to comply with State earthquake requirements, but some people suspected there were other reasons. Earlier in 2017 PAMC had paid a $42 million settlement as the result of a Justice Department investigation. A whistleblower had accused PAMC of creating marketing arrangements that provided kickbacks to physicians and also of paying inflated rates to rent office space. The owners denied this had anything to do with the closure.
Arranging for kickbacks to doctors and boosting payments for office space may sound bad, but there are reasons to believe it’s a lot more serious than that. I took a look at PAMC’s filing on the California Secretary of State’s web site dated November 18, 2016. It listed Dr. Carl Moy as the CEO. A quick search revealed that his reviews on Yelp were lousy. But I also found Moy listed on another filing at the State web site, this time as Secretary for a company called SynerMed.
Never heard of SynerMed? I hadn’t either. Turns out they’re one of the country’s largest medical practice management companies, with hundreds of thousands of patients in California. They work behind the scenes, acting as a middle-man for doctors and clinics, collecting millions of dollars in payments from Medicare and Medicaid. Unfortunately, it looks like a lot of that money wasn’t going to patient care. In early October Synermed’s Senior Director of Compliance, Christine Babu, presented a report to her bosses. Apparently for years company employees had been improperly denying care to patients and faking documents to cover up the practice. According to Babu, the company made an effort to keep her quiet. Not long afterward her report ended up in the hands of state regulators.
SynerMed has announced that it will be closing down, and the State has launched an investigation. But the thing that caught my attention was the connection with PAMC. Dr. Moy has been listed as an officer for both companies. And it was just days after Christine Babu first presented her report that PAMC announced it was shutting its doors. In light of that, I have a hard time believing the seismic safety story. Just months ago they paid $42 million to settle a suit related to kickbacks, and now someone who served as a corporate officer is tied to a company that’s under investigation for massive Medicaid fraud. To me it sounds like there’s been shady stuff going on at PAMC for years, and it’s finally caught up with them.
If you want more details on what’s gone down at SynerMed, here’s the story the Daily News ran.
This is really a tragedy. Whatever level of care PAMC was providing to the Chinatown community, the patients are out in the cold now. Some of them will find other places to go, but it’s getting harder and harder for low-income families to find providers who will welcome them. Add to that the fact that many of the patients are seniors who may have difficulty travelling farther, and those Asian patients with limited English skills could be hard pressed to connect with doctors who speak their language.
So that’s the story. A hospital is founded in the 19th century by a group of citizens who realize that the community needs healthcare. In the 20th century it expands to meet the challenge of providing care to a diverse, low-income neighborhood. And now, less than two decades into the 21st century, its doors are closed, seemingly the result of rampant greed and dishonesty.
Why do I feel like this story is just one more depressing reflection of the times we live in?