Lifepoint Hospital Mishandled Sex Assault Claim, Lawyer Said

A Lifepoint Health hospital delayed acting for “a couple years” after officials learned that a physician was accused of sexually assaulting patients, according to statements made by the company’s top attorney during a meeting with employees.

(Bloomberg) — A Lifepoint Health hospital delayed acting for “a couple years” after officials learned that a physician was accused of sexually assaulting patients, according to statements made by the company’s top attorney during a meeting with employees. 

Jennifer Peters, the chief legal officer for the nation’s sixth-largest hospital chain, described that incident and two others during a meeting with members of Lifepoint’s human resources staff last month. She said the episodes had created risks for the company and patient safety.

In a statement issued after this story’s publication, a Lifepoint spokeswoman contradicted remarks Peters made during the Aug. 8 meeting with members of the company’s human resources staff. “What was known about this provider for two years was in relation to poor conduct and had nothing to do with sexual assaults,” the statement said. The physician in question was removed from the hospital, Peters said during the August meeting, according to a partial recording of the session reviewed by Bloomberg News.

Peters’ remarks during that session covered Lifepoint staff members’ recent responses to evidence of drug use and allegations of sexual assault at some of its hospitals. They offer a rare and frank look into what Peters described as lapses at the for-profit hospital chain, which is owned by funds managed by private equity firm Apollo Global Management. During the session, in which Peters repeatedly urged staffers to hold executives accountable and “do what is right for the company and the patients,” she twice laid blame on local hospital leaders.

The most egregious incident she described, the lengthy delay in confronting alleged sexual assaults, involved an obstetrician who was accused of “assaulting patients” at a hospital, she said, according to the recording. During her remarks, she didn’t name the hospital or the obstetrician or say who made the accusations. But she said the episode offered lessons for Lifepoint employees about responding to problems quickly, and she singled out the hospital’s local chief executive officer for blame. 

Peters said during the meeting that the hospital’s chief “apparently blocked us” from taking action because the allegations involved the only obstetrician at that hospital. “And what happens when you remove your only OB, and our program shuts down and catastrophe awaits?”

But catastrophe could also come “when a physician molests patients,” she added. When Peters’ office learned of the inaction, the physician was removed and temporary staff was brought in, she told the HR staffers. But by that time, other Lifepoint employees had known about the alleged assaults for “a couple years,” she said. 

In response to questions from Bloomberg News about that incident, Lifepoint declined to name the hospital where it occurred. Emily Serck, the company’s vice president of communications declined to answer several questions about Peters’ remarks to the HR staff members. But in a subsequent statement Monday evening, the company said it was “categorically untrue to assert that a Lifepoint physician faced accusations of sexually assaulting patients for two years. It is therefore incorrect to conclude that allegations of sexual assault went unaddressed to begin with.”

Lifepoint’s statement on Monday evening also said: “We stand by our actions and will continue to do the right thing and encourage everyone across our company to speak up and report any concerns. We believe strongly in the value of open and transparent conversations and will continue to demonstrate this with our leaders and employees.” Previously, the company had said that “we investigate any allegations of misconduct, report concerns to the right authorities and regulators, and take appropriate disciplinary action” and that it was “disappointed that discussions at an internal human resources meeting have been taken out of context and distort our dedication to transparency and continuous improvement.” 

In the Aug. 8 meeting, Peters also described a separate episode at Lifepoint’s hospital in Ottumwa, Iowa, that came to light earlier this year. There, she said, the company failed to heed “red flags” about the hospital’s operations prior to local police revealing in January that a nurse practitioner had sexually assaulted at least nine female patients.

The nurse practitioner died of a drug overdose at the hospital, Ottumwa Regional Health Center, last October, sparking a police investigation into his death. A police review of his mobile phone revealed video and photo evidence of the assaults on patients, whom police believed to be asleep or unconscious.

“We have already made a great many changes at our hospital in the last several weeks to further strengthen our internal controls and security measures,” the hospital said in a public statement at the time. “We will continue to take all available actions to prevent bad actors and ensure a safe environment for our patients, providers and employees.”

‘Significant Problems’

A review conducted by Lifepoint found several signs that “should have been sending off red flags all over this organization” prior to the discovery of the assaults, Peters told the HR staff members. “The leader was known to be weak,” she said. “There were significant problems with quality.” Dennis Hunger, who was the CEO of the Ottumwa hospital at the time of the nurse practitioner’s death, declined to comment. He stepped down from that post in November 2022. 

While there were scattered improvement efforts at Ottumwa over time, “never once did we come together as a team to say, ‘there are red flags going off, we need to be in there as a team to help this organization be in a better place,’” Peters said during her meeting with HR staffers. 

“Had we done that, you guys, I don’t know that we would have known there was molestation of patients going on,” Peters said. But “we would have absolutely corrected a lot of things, including the deficiencies that were happening at the top of that organization.”

Ottumwa police said it wasn’t clear which drug the nurse practitioner had overdosed on, but said his residence contained a large quantity of hospital-grade medications, which Ottumwa Regional officials self-reported to the Drug Enforcement Administration.  

By the time Lifepoint learned of the assaults, some of the victims were dead, Peters said. 

“We had lots of people on the call” to determine how to respond to the discovery, she said. One question that arose was whether hospital officials could “close the book” on patients who died and move on, she said. “Well, no. The right thing to do is we now have to find their living heirs,” Peters said during the August meeting. “We have to own up to what happened and we have to repair it.” 

Lifepoint declined to say who asked whether the hospital could avoid notifying next-of-kin.

Four months before the nurse practitioner’s on-site overdose in Iowa, another Lifepoint hospital, Sovah Health in Danville, Virginia, paid $4.36 million to settle claims arising from a federal investigation that two employees had removed 11,000 units of controlled substances from the hospital, including painkillers. 

One employee found a “loophole” in the hospital’s automated dispensing system for hydrocodone and oxycodone, and another tampered with 14 vials of fentanyl, according to the US attorney’s office for the Western District of Virginia. In the settlement, Sovah Health agreed to four years of increased oversight. Danville presented another lesson, according to Peters: “There is one issue in this organization that we don’t have our arms around: drug diversion prevention, pharmacy controls.”

She also said the Danville settlement avoided a much worse potential outcome. “Had that hospital been criminally prosecuted they would have lost their Medicare number,” Peters told the HR staffers. “It would have been a huge problem for this entire organization up to Apollo and their investors.”

(Updates with additional information and comments from Lifepoint, beginning in first paragraph)

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