Disturbing pattern of silence at UK

It is time, past time, for the trustees of the University of Kentucky to insist the secretive Kentucky Medical Services Foundation and UK HealthCare comply with state law, common sense and legitimate public interest by opening their books and records.

Their imaginative legal arguments and bizarrely incomplete responses to requests for information by the Office of the Attorney General, this newspaper and a private individual should embarrass and trouble the trustees.

Linda Blackford’s excellent story last Sunday on the many unanswered questions about UK HealthCare’s botched 2013 purchase of a private cardiology clinic in Hazard — UK’s now spent over $5 million to fix federal billing issues there — should motivate trustees to get answers. They should lose sleep over the photograph of pages of legal bills UK supplied with everything but the letterhead and the fees blacked out.

What we do know about those bills is that UK and KMSF paid a Washington D.C. firm $1 million to help resolve Medicare and Medicaid billing issues at the clinic that they say arose from using the wrong form. That hefty legal bill came even though the resolution involved paying back “more than what was required,” according to Mark Birdwhistell, UK HealthCare’s vice president for administration and external affairs.

That all may be true but it does raise at least a couple of serious questions:

1. How could UK HealthCare, which must collect tens of millions annually from Medicare and Medicaid, not know which form(s) to use?

2. Who pays an attorney $1 million to settle a dispute by paying more than was owed?

If this were a one-off we might think that UK HealthCare and KMSF, which handles billing for UK physicians, are just muddling around to avoid admitting their deal went bad. But it’s only the latest in a series of stories that indicate a pattern of secretiveness in UK’s vast health-care empire:

▪  In 2013, after pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon Mark Plunkett was suspended from doing surgery, UK HealthCare refused to release mortality rates in the department, despite an attorney general’s ruling that it was obligated to under Open Records law.

UK ultimately released the data after a CNN report on two babies that died after surgeries there. Plunkett, then one of UK’s highest-paid people at $700,000 a year, received a severance contract in which UK agreed to pay him $1.05 million and another $700,000 if he couldn’t find work at his previous salary, in exchange for his silence about what happened at UK.

▪  In 2014, UK stripped trauma surgeon Paul Kearney, who had received several recognitions and awards during his 27 years at UK, of his clinical privileges, citing abusive language toward co-workers and patients. Kearney argues in a whistleblower lawsuit that he is being punished for questioning the administration of Dr. Michael Karpf, the head of UK’s medical operations, including how he controls the millions that flow through KMSF.

▪  Dr. Lachin Hatemi, who studied under Kearney and now practices in Indianapolis, has filed open-records requests to gain access to the foundation’s records and those of UK’s Healthcare Compensation Planning Committee, which makes recommendations on physician compensation. After UK denied two of Hatemi’s requests, he appealed to the attorney general’s office.

In both cases — 15-ORD-205 last year and 16-ORD-101 last month — the AG, whose rulings have the force of law in open records cases, upheld Hatemi’s request. UK and KMSF have not complied with the orders. KMSF appealed the 2015 ruling to Circuit Court; UK has not decided whether to appeal the 2016 decision.

Last fall, UK President Eli Capilouto took the unusual step of apologizing for the “imperfect” handling of the Kearney disciplinary action, although he stood by the decisions that were made. Speaking to the University Senate, Capilouto went on to chide some of those who complained. “Criticism is appropriate when grounded in facts. All the facts,” he said.

By this reasoning, UK HealthCare and KMSF can never benefit from criticism because the university hides “all the facts.”

That is a very disturbing state of affairs at a public university, one that the board of trustees is compelled to confront.