Top Kaiser Permanente official resigns amid conflict-of-interest scandal

February 27th, 2014

NUHW called for Christine Cassel’s resignation to curb influence of HMO money in National Quality Forum recommendations

Dr. Christine Cassel resigned her seat on Kaiser Permanente’s Board of Directors Wednesday.

Cassel stepped down from California’s largest HMO in the wake of a February 12 ProPublica story, based on documents provided by NUHW, that revealed that Cassel is encumbered by significant conflicts of interest. Cassel is the CEO of the National Quality Forum in Washington, D.C., whose recommendations are adopted by thousands of hospitals across the nation. Yet she also served on the boards of two corporations with a stake in NQF’s policies and recommendations. NUHW called for Cassel’s resignation Feb. 20.

“This is a victory for patients and caregivers and a victory for transparency in the top echelons of the healthcare industry,” said Sal Rosselli, president of NUHW, whose members include 5,000 Kaiser employees throughout California. “The National Quality Forum plays a huge role in our hospitals by defining the ‘best practices’ that our caregivers use. Healthcare workers and patients need to be certain that money from giant HMOs like Kaiser isn’t corrupting NQF’s decision-making process.”

NUHW called for Cassel’s resignation on February 20.

Oakland-based Kaiser Permanente paid Cassel about $200,000 a year — more than $1.5 million since 2003 — to serve on its board. In addition, Cassel received $235,000 in compensation and stock last year for serving on the board of Premier Inc., which provides purchasing and performance improvement consulting for thousands of hospitals and nursing facilities. All of this came on top of Cassel’s approximately $500,000 salary as CEO of the National Quality Forum, which conducts reviews of hospital procedures to determine best practices, many of which become standard practice in medical centers throughout the country.

National ethics experts told ProPublica that Cassel’s ethical breaches were “absolutely egregious” and that the cleanest way to eliminate these conflicts would be for Cassel to resign from the Kaiser and Premier boards. She resigned from both Wednesday.

“I will miss my service on the boards,” Cassel told Modern Healthcare, “but I do not wish this issue to interfere with the important work facing NQF.”

It is the second conflict-of-interest scandal to engulf the National Quality Forum in as many months. In January, the U.S. Department of Justice settled a $40 million whistleblower lawsuit involving an NQF expert adviser who reportedly received millions of dollars in kickbacks for shepherding a drug company’s product through NQF’s Safe Practices Committee, which he co-chaired.

Media links
Pro Publica: Payments to CEO Raise New Conflicts at Top Health Quality Group
Pro Publica: Senator Cites ‘Serious Concerns,’ Demands National Quality Forum Records
Pro Publica: Hidden Financial Ties Rattle Top Health Quality Group
San Francisco Business Times: Kaiser Permanente board member under fire for perceived conflicts of interest

Documents
Kaiser Foundation Health Plan IRS Form 990
Senator Grassley’s letter