GRAVES REGISTRY: Capitalism's shining lights


I watched "Blue Jasmine" recently. Woody Allen's movie is based loosely upon the Bernie Madoff case. You remember Mr. Madoff. He was the one who went to jail so the government could trumpet the fact that they really do frown upon that kind of behavior, even if they declined to show much interest in pursuing it when the miscreant was comfortably installed in a suite of offices on Wall Street or in one of the nation's so-called "too big to fail" entities.

JP Morgan Chase, I understand, just gave its CEO, Jamie Dimon, a raise. And why not? It isn't the business of the bank's shareholders to look into just how their dividend checks got to be so plump. You don't invest with the expectation that every cent of remuneration is going to be accounted for. These days, the potential damage to personal moral compasses, or the illusions of such, is just too great to risk.

It's Mr. Dimon's job to make the prospect of those checks so appealing that they will seem to give off the scent of a freshly baked apple pie. And who wonders where the apples came from when you have a piece of the pie right in front of you? By the standards of any stalwart capitalist, Mr. Dimon is worth every penny he earns.

That, I am sure, is the rationale applied to another beacon of capitalism's light along the rocky shoreline of a pitiless world. The problem for Gary D. Newsome, the former CEO of Health Management Associates, is that the Justice Dept. is beginning to shine a little too much light on his three-year tenure with the for-profit hospital chain. Ironically, and not necessarily without coincidence, H.M.A. is based in Florida, the same state where the current governor didn't know anything at all about rampant fraud when he was CEO of the Hospital Corporation of America that resulted in the largest fine ever levied in the United States.

It was a dark day for civilization when Big Business realized just how lush and green the field of health care could be. Mr. Newsome was paid $22 million for the three years he worked for H.M.A. This outrageous, unbridled example of greed is, oddly enough, accepted - and even admired - as a sterling example of the attainment of the American Dream, even as people die every day for want of the most basic of health care needs.

According to the Justice Dept., H.M.A. rated doctors not so much by any relevant medical standards, but by their willingness to admit patients into hospitals, regardless of whether or not the person's particular injury or ailment required hospitalization. People who questioned the policy were summarily fired. An accountant, who hired an outside firm to investigate H.M.A.'s extraordinarily high admissions rate, was told to burn the report that confirmed it. The goal, after all, was to make tons of money, not provide the best care for a patient.

Mr. Allen's movie focuses on Jasmine French (beautifully played by Cate Blanchett), whose affinity for living the good life, courtesy of her husband's massive scams, was only matched by her ability to finesse (suppress would probably be a better word) the question of where exactly all the money was coming from.

In many ways - and in a much broader sense - it struck me that the American people have become enablers of the same kind of convenient denial that the woman in the movie exhibited. Crooks with deep pockets have a great track record for getting away with appalling things in America, but that doesn't mean that we have to concede our right to be outraged by their behavior.

Newsome, with his $22 million all neatly pocketed, will hire a bevy of high-octane lawyers, who will adamantly deny, as Gov. Scott's did, any involvement of their client in this patently obvious scheme to bilk money out of Medicare and Medicaid (that's you and me, folks). They will insist that H.M.A.'s priority was always patient care, despite glaring evidence that realizing an obscene profit was routinely placed before any medical concerns.

You have to wonder what people like Newsome tell themselves in those inevitable moments when the house is quiet and introspection looms up like a graveyard ghost. We have become immune to the multi-million dollar salaries that these people have convinced themselves - and, to some extent, us - that they are worth. To do that, we can't pay much attention to the ones on the other end of the ladder, the hobos on the gravy train. In Newsome's case, that would be the people who have to go without medical attention they need so that he and others like him infiltrating the medical profession, who contribute absolutely nothing to furthering anyone's well-being but their own, can sap the resources that might otherwise mean lower health costs for everyone.

Mr. Newsome left H.M.A. last summer to head up a religious mission in Uruguay, offering evidence, at least, that behind every dark cloud lurks either a guilty conscience or a desire to provide the world with a big laugh.


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