Caregivers at a hospital owned by scandal-plagued Tenet ( THC) now face murder charges. One doctor and two nurses who worked at Memorial Medical Center -- where 34 patients died in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina -- have been arrested on suspicion of second-degree murder, a spokeswoman for Louisiana Attorney General Charles Foti confirmed on Tuesday. Dr. Anna Pou and nurses Cheri Landry and Lori Budo were arrested Monday night, the Associated Press reports. The arrests followed months of investigation by Foti's office and came the same day Tenet announced a deal to sell Memorial and two other New Orleans hospitals to a nonprofit operator. Memorial has been shuttered since employees evacuated the flooded hospital after last summer's devastating hurricane. The death toll there far surpassed that seen at other hospitals in the area. "We're not calling this euthanasia," Foti spokeswoman Kris Wartelle told the AP Tuesday. "We're not calling this mercy killings. This is second-degree murder." Memorial counted 10 of the dead patients as its own, with the rest admitted by a long-term care provider that operated inside the hospital. Workers there struggled to care for the patients under horrific conditions -- with water rising and temperatures soaring past 100 degrees -- as they waited for days to be rescued. For its part, Tenet has regularly portrayed its employees as heroes who performed admirably throughout the disaster. But Jim Moriarty, an attorney who has won two major settlements on behalf of Tenet patients in the past, now believes the company could face big legal bills once again. "Tenet has a fiduciary duty to protect its patients," Moriarty says. "The company is absolutely responsible for its nurses and its staff. ... They're going to wind up paying real money to the families of the people who were killed."
The company failed to return a phone call from TheStreet.com seeking comment, but a spokesman told the AP that "euthanasia is repugnant to everything we believe as ethical health care providers, and it violates every precept of ethical behavior and the law. It is never permissible under any circumstances." Tenet's stock, hammered in recent weeks toward a 13-year low, slipped another 2 cents to $6.23 on Tuesday. Tenet has suffered from high patient death rates at some of its other hospitals as well. Just last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the liver-transplant program at Tenet-owned USC University Hospital had seen patient deaths on the rise. Since 2002, the Times reported, the center's one-year survival rate has been dropping, recently hitting a new low of 75.8%. That rate falls well below the national average of 86.6%, the Times noted, and even comes up shy of the rate necessary to qualify for government certification and funding. Sheryl Skolnick, senior vice president of CRT Capital, called the report "disturbing, to say the least." She has no position in Tenet and CRT hasn't done banking for the company. Moreover, in the same story, the Times reported that a liver-transplant center at another Tenet-owned academic center -- St. Louis University Hospital -- suffered a higher-than-average number of patient deaths as well. Ironically, the article came out the same day that Tenet was touting its new focus on quality to a big crowd of investors at its home base in Dallas. By then, the San Diego Union-Tribune had spotlighted high death rates at several other Tenet hospitals. Back in March, the newspaper reported that Alvarado Hospital Medical Center had posted the highest death rate for patients undergoing heart bypass surgery in the state. Three other hospitals, all owned by Tenet, wound up on that same problem list.
Tenet has agreed to sell Alvarado -- the target of two criminal kickback trials -- as part of a downsizing plan that also includes the divestiture of most of its New Orleans properties. Government officials had actually sought control of one of those New Orleans hospitals, known as Meadowcrest, before Tenet even decided to shed it. The officials accused Tenet of improperly abandoning the hospital when it was still operable -- and badly needed -- in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. For its part, Tenet said the company was simply trying to protect those inside the hospital from dangerous conditions and wound up fighting off that takeover in the end. Still, critics wonder just how safe patients can be inside hospitals operated by the company. "Tenet executives have repeatedly advanced the notion that they are rebuilding the company on a foundation of quality health care," said the Tenet Shareholder Committee, a group long critical of company management. "But the higher-than-average death rates do not support this claim. ... There is nothing more serious at hospitals than death rates."