I Lost My Kind Sick Mom. I Blame For-Profit Health Care

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By
John M. Rodgers

A year ago my mother passed away at a for-profit hospital in southeastern New Hampshire. A doctor called just after 10 p.m. to tell me a nurse had found her, it was likely a cardiac arrest, and they would be moving her body.

It all sounded very routine and impersonal, which made sense because I’d never met the doctor and she didn’t know my mother.

Worse, my mom died alone; earlier in the day a different doctor had told us that she was recovering from a recent UTI and just needed time. She and we didn’t get that time.

I know this story is and isn’t unique. But it must be told to help reveal the faults of a system that has reached a tipping point, turning healthcare into a profits-over-people business, where cost-cutting, higher prices and inadequate services take priority.

Helping create and capitalizing on this crisis are giant corporations that seek to acquire, merge, and consolidate.

John Rodgers’ mother, who died in a North Hampshire for-profit hospital.

John Rodgers

One such company is Hospital Corporation of America (HCA) Healthcare, owner and operator of more than 183 hospitals and some 2,300 “sites of care” in 21 states and the U.K.

It runs three hospitals in New Hampshire, and, unfortunately, my mom ended up in one.

HCA’s March 2020 $67 million acquisition of Frisbie Memorial Hospital in Rochester, New Hampshire drew scrutiny, especially from those who worked for the hospital.

Because of cuts associated with the takeover, 12 of 14 primary care doctors left the hospital’s practices, per Foster’s Daily Democrat, reportedly leaving thousands of patients without care.

As one doctor, a former president of the NH Medical Society, described the acquisition: “…what I see is that they are working to serve their shareholders, and that that is more important to them than what is good for our communities.”

One lifelong family practice doctor familiar with HCA’s cost-cutting, Dr. James Fieseher, wrote an op-ed in the Portsmouth Herald after the Frisbie acquisition that explains how “loss leaders” in hospital services—often diagnostic medicine—demand “squeezing” that entails cutting support staff while requiring that doctors do more in less time.

This squeezing deprives primary care providers of essential support at a time when these critical cogs in our health system are already in short supply.

Last year HCA ceased labor and delivery services at Frisbie, NHPR reported, despite promising to keep them in operation until at least 2025 unless it could show they would incur a loss by doing so.

The services were no longer “financially viable,” a common phrase in HCA contracts, and the company had shifted funds to other services, thus satisfying the state.

This closure adds to a growing and unsettling trend here and across the country that’s forcing expecting mothers to plan for extended travel or relocate closer to equipped hospitals. “Maternity care deserts” have become a reality across the U.S.

My mother lived all of her adult life in New London, New Hampshire, a rural town with a college and a 25-bed hospital. A lifelong school teacher, she had a series of afflictions in her seventies that required hospital visits.

New London Hospital cared for her like family and saved her life more than once. During a few visits to Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, 30 minutes north, she received professional care.

In December of 2022, she had symptoms of a UTI and was sent to New London’s ER. At 2 a.m. The doctor prescribed IV antibiotics, requiring she be admitted. But there were no open beds.

After calling hospitals in the region and finding them also full (reportedly, per News 9, with COVID and flu patients), they wound up with Frisbie. By 4 a.m. she lay in the back of an ambulance bound for Rochester and her end.

The local community hospital is a dying breed across the U.S., in a world where a new MRI machine can cost more than $1 million; the radiologist makes an average of $360,000; the nurse may be “traveling,” making $10,000 a month; and Medicare negotiates bills down.

Lost are the relationships in such a hospital, where the caregivers know the patients and their families by name, where empathy and accountability supersede profitability.

When I got to my mom’s ICU room at Frisbie, she greeted me with a smile. An affable nurse was helping her eat. Things looked good: Her vitals were stable, and she only seemed slightly confused, a common UTI symptom.

I soon realized we were far from home when the case worker arrived to fill out an admission form, telling me I’d have to produce legal documentation if I wanted to take any part in my mom’s care.

This struggle continued even after I provided documents from my mom’s attorney. It took almost a week for the hospital to give my sister, a nurse in Texas, access to the patient portal so we could know what the doctors were noting every day (because I never saw them).

After my mom’s transfer out of the ICU, a staffing shortage was revealed; I rarely saw the charge nurse. During the Christmas weekend, many hospital staff appeared to vanish.

My mom lost the ability to communicate and began jerking her head unceasingly. When my sister and I suspected the antibiotic, we felt the doctors dismissed the idea. Days later, when they ended the antibiotic, my mom regained her senses.

Yet because she’d been so weakened and was deemed unable to safely eat, a feeding tube was put in. But the nurses struggled to place the tube, the x-ray technician had to visit three times, and my mom suffered.

HCA’s pattern of inadequate staffing has been widely reported. The country’s largest healthcare workers union, Service Employees International Union, published a report in which 80 percent of responding members had witnessed shortages jeopardizing patient care.

After HCA acquired six hospitals in North Carolina in 2019, patients and staff reported poor outcomes due to staff shortages, according to NBC News. Here in New Hampshire, an ER nurse at Portsmouth Regional Hospital filed a lawsuit against the hospital and HCA, claiming she was wrongfully terminated for complaining about understaffing that led to death.

Meanwhile, HCA continues to rake in billions and investors are recommending its stock for 2024.

There are so many more disturbing details about our experience. I believe staff shortages contributed to many of the problems we faced.

But what we felt was a lack of empathy in our experience still stings. And maybe that’s the most disheartening and frightening aspect of for-profit, corporate-run hospitals.

A few days before my mom’s passing, the hospital moved her to a room where she wasn’t on a monitor. “She’s doing better,” they told me. But she didn’t look better and she wouldn’t even drink her favorite coffee.

I called the hospital back the night my mom passed and the nurse who’d found her answered. She had found her unresponsive and after trying to rouse her, she’d felt her forehead. It was cold.

Three weeks after arriving at Frisbie my mom was gone—a kind, old, sick lady, not worth much to anyone chasing the bottom line.

Patients, families, and communities in New Hampshire and across the country deserve much better care. State and federal departments of health, nonprofit healthcare watchdogs, healthcare professionals, and law firms must ensure that we all receive it.

John M. Rodgers is a freelance writer and a former English teacher.

All views expressed are the author’s own.

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