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New York Times reporting raises questions about a Richmond hospital owned by Bon Secours

Stethoscopes are pictured in an intensive care unit.
Stethoscopes are pictured in an intensive care unit.

Richmond Community Hospital makes the most money of any hospital in the state. And yet the primarily Black community that the hospital serves often doesn’t get the care community members need. That’s according to recent reporting from the New York Times.

Katie Thomas is a healthcare reporter for the New York Times. Jessica Silver-Greenberg focuses on business. Together they set out to learn more about how non-profit hospitals operate. That led them to Richmond’s east end – and a facility called Richmond Community Hospital, owned today by the non-profit chain, Bon Secours.

“When you walk into Richmond Community Hospital, you would never know… that it is just bringing in so much money for the big system,” said Silver-Greenberg in a recent interview.

As they report it, the MRI machine is constantly on the fritz and in 2017 Bon Secours shut the ICU shut down.

“No one really blames the doctors or the nurses or the aides or the techs, you know… but there is a sense, and it's like a whisper network…do not go there.”

And yet on paper Richmond Community makes more money than any other hospital in Virginia. The numbers were surprising, says Silver-Greenberg.

“The question is, like, how it became so profitable?” Silver-Greenberg said. “That became really the centerpiece in many ways of our story. The profits are thanks to this federal drug discount program called 340 B.”

Basically, 340-B allows hospitals that serve low-income populations to buy drugs at a deeply discounted rate.

“And then bill private insurance and government insurance, the full cost,” explained Silver-Greenberg. “So the hope was that hospitals that serve this specific population would take that spread, take the difference and put that back into the hospitals that qualified them for the program to begin with.”

But that’s not what Bon Secours was doing with Richmond Community, explains healthcare reporter Katie Thomas.

“What we found was that they were sometimes very publicly in press releases on their website, you know, expanding and adding to other hospitals in the Richmond area that were in wealthier areas – expanding an ICU, adding maternity unit beds, you know, building a new freestanding, freestanding emergency room in one area,” Thomas said. “While they were not investing at Richmond Community Hospital.

As one doctor told them, it was like Bon Secours was laundering money through this poor hospital to its wealthier outposts.

In a full page ad this past weekend in the Richmond Times Dispatch, Bon Secours says the entire narrative is misleading. A spokesperson for Bon Secours told RadioIQ the company is dedicated to increasing access to care, and those new facilities serve other rural medically underserved communities.

The non-profit, faith-based chain, bought Richmond Community in 1995. But before that, the institution had a long history of serving the city in a unique way. It was founded more than 100 years ago, explained Thomas, during segregation.

“Black patients were allowed in some other hospitals, but they were often given very second class status,” she said. “They were treated in basement facilities… places that were really not at all on the same level as the white patients. And so, this hospital really aimed to serve the Black community.”

Today Richmond Community is one of only two Black-founded hospitals still in operation in the country. And yet, reports the New York Times, patients are receiving substandard care – unable to quickly access the new facilities, equipment and specialized doctors available in other parts of the Bon Secours system.

A spokesperson for Bon Secours says they’re replacing the MRI machine, and they recently broke ground on a multi-million dollar expansion of the hospital campus in Richmond’s East End.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Mallory Noe-Payne is a Radio IQ reporter based in Richmond.