RICHMOND, Va. — After the New York Times released a bombshell investigation into the Bon Secours Health System, many patients flooded the CBS 6 Problem Solvers with concerns about their experiences, bills and documentation with the hospital network.
"I have just a really sick feeling in my stomach," said one local woman, after reading through the article. "It felt like a punch in the gut."
The woman, who requested to remain anonymous, said a family member relies on Bon Secours for infusions that are critical to that person's health.
She said the treatments routinely take place at Bon Secours's St. Mary's campus in Henrico's West End, but statements and paperwork shown to the CBS 6 Problem Solvers indicated services are provided at Richmond Community Hospital on N. 28th Street in the city's East End — and that the medications are also provided by Richmond Community Hospital.
“We've never set foot on Richmond Community Hospital. I couldn't even tell you where it was until I read the article that came out, so it feels a bit like we're being taken advantage of," the woman said.
While she's questioned why Richmond Community has been listed on the documentation for a while now, she said it started to make sense after reading NYT's "Profits Over Patients" investigation.
The piece cited many former and current employees of Richmond Community Hospital alleging its owner Bon Secours has slashed resources from the hospital over the years.
The article outlined diminishing support for Richmond Community came as Catholic-based Bon Secours utilized the hospital to rake in hundreds of millions of dollars in profits through a lucrative drug program called 340B.
The law allows non-profit hospitals that avoid paying taxes, like Bon Secours, which serve low-income communities to buy medication for half the cost while still billing patients and insurance companies close to full price.
The goal is to incentivize Bon Secours to use those savings to invest back into the facility and the disadvantaged area that it serves. However, sources told the New York Times that much of the money saved through the program does not go toward those efforts as Richmond Community Hospital lacks basic tools and resources to treat patients.
Some healthcare workers said the circumstances have placed them in positions of not being able to properly care for patients in dire need.
“To hear that they don't have that and that it's just essentially an ER with very limited supplies and equipment, my heart breaks for the people in that community. That's not okay," the woman with relatives who receives care at St. Mary's said.
According to the article, Bon Secours told the New York Times the "hospital system had spent nearly $10 million on improvements to Richmond Community Hospital since 2013, including opening a pharmacy and renovating the cafeteria, emergency department, and other areas. The chain also invested nearly $9 million since 2018 in the neighborhood surrounding the hospital."
NYT reports that other locations across Central Virginia owned by Bon Secours, including St. Mary's, are legal subsidiaries of Richmond Community Hospital, and the federal program does not require Bon Secours to use drug sales to help the underserved patients who qualified them for the program.
In essence, patients with insurers who visit hospitals, medical centers, or clinics in wealthier neighborhoods could "receive expensive drugs, but on paper make the clinics extensions of poor hospitals to take advantage of 340B," according to NYT.
The local woman told the CBS 6 Problem Solvers that she felt "taken advantage of" as the price of her family member's prescription drugs, which Bon Secours requires to be purchased through their system, has put them in an incredible financial pinch. She added she's been unsuccessful in obtaining financial assistance from Bon Secours to help pay the medical bills.
"We were not aware until this weekend that the hospital was acquiring [medication] for essentially pennies on the dollar, and our insurance company was being billed the full amount, which is a tremendous financial burden for our family," she said.
She added she tried calling Bon Secours with questions about her past statements and why Richmond Community Hospital has consistently appeared on her bills, but a representative told her they could not answer her questions Monday.
"We're getting stonewalled now and told that people can't talk about it, which is not okay," she said. "They really need to step up and do the right thing. People are on to it. Now that people know what's happening, they need to do the right thing. They need to put that money back where it belongs."
Another patient, who has received infusions from Bon Secours, reached out to the CBS 6 Problem Solvers with a similar story.
Mel Pruett suffers from Postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS), a form of dysautonomia. After the NYT piece, she looked back at her past paperwork and saw "Richmond Community Hospital" written all over it.
When she received an estimate for her last infusion, it said services would be provided at Richmond Community on N. 28th Street. But Pruett received her infusions at St. Mary's on Bremo Road.
"It was really confusing to see that," Pruett said. "Ever since I was a teenager, I've always gotten my infusions from Bremo."
While Pruett, who is currently uninsured, received an $8,000 estimate for the saline infusion, she was later charged a little under $1,000. Her statement that came through the mail said services were provided at "Richmond Community Hospital - Bremo Outpatient Infusion Center," differing from the estimate.
Pruett said regardless of her own confusion, she's upset if profits made through the drug program are not being used to help patients in the East End. She called for more transparency of how the funds are being used, though the law does not require hospitals to disclose how much they've saved through 340B.
"I really hope Bon Secours takes this time to own up to their actions and can fix the pain that they've already inflicted. They are a hospital. They should be helping people, not further hurting people that go there to seek help," Pruett said.
The other woman who spoke anonymously to the CBS 6 Problem Solvers called for more oversight of the federal program.
"There needs to be more communication between the lawmakers and the hospital systems, and the patients and the insurance companies. It's really hard to be your own advocate, especially when you're sick," she said.
The statement the health system sent CBS 6 over the weekend after the report initially came out said, “To suggest that we don’t operate in full support of our important Mission is without merit and we take issue with such baseless allegations. Today, we continue to build on the legacy of our founding congregation through our commitment to addressing health disparities."
CBS 6 asked Bon Secours about the confusion from patients about their bills and why paperwork shows medication and services are provided by "Richmond Community Hospital" when they have not utilized that location.
The health system sent this statement in response:
"Bon Secours is fully compliant with the federal 340B program and utilizes savings for community re-investment that aligns with the program’s regulations. As a provider in Richmond’s East End, 340B is critical to our patients. We have and will continue to provide accessible, affordable, high-quality care through this and other programs that improve the well-being of the greater Richmond community.
It is vitally important to understand that 340B is a pharmaceutical cost-savings program. It was created to support safety nets like Richmond Community Hospital, which deliver care to underserved communities. Viewers may visit the following resources for more information:
- 340B Health - https://www.340bhealth.org/newsroom/media-kit/ [nam11.safelinks.protection.outlook.com]
- HRSA Office of Pharmacy Affairs - https://www.hrsa.gov/opa [nam11.safelinks.protection.outlook.com]; https://www.hrsa.gov/opa/educational-resources [nam11.safelinks.protection.outlook.com]
- American Hospital Association - https://aha.org/2022-06-07-2022-340b-hospital-community-benefit-analysis [nam11.safelinks.protection.outlook.com]"