Hope for healing

7 months after New York Times exposé, healthy equity advocates, Bon Secours report progress

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 4/6/2023, 6 p.m.
Bon Secours Richmond is starting to receive positive feedback from advocates who had harshly criticized the hospital system for allegedly …
The new Bon Secours Richmond Community Hospital’s East End Medical Office Building that opened in January was a positive step toward healing after last September’s New York Times article that criticized Bon Secours for failing to re-invest funds into low-income communities. Photo by Regina H. Boone

Bon Secours Richmond is starting to receive positive feedback from advocates who had harshly criticized the hospital system for allegedly failing to re-invest income from a federal discount pricing program into low-income communities, most notably Richmond Community Hospital and low-income residents living nearby.

In a statement released Monday, the Richmond Coalition for Health Equity reported “signs of progress” following behind-the-scenes talks between advocates and Bon Secours’ Richmond leadership over the use of savings from the federal 340B program.

“Those talks were frank, candid and often encouraging,” according to the statement issued by Brian W. Bills, a coalition leader and director of federal policy and advocacy for Upstream USA, which promotes ways to reduce unplanned pregnancies.

According to the statement, financial information shared during the talks indicate Bon Secours is committed to improving health services for low-income people using the savings gained through the 340B program, which allows certified hospitals to charge insurance companies full price primarily for cancer drugs after buying them at a program discount.

Bon Secours, which received the statement in advance of its release, did not include any comment in the coalition’s message. The health system also did not respond to a Free Press request for comment. Still, Bon Secours did not offer any significant objections ahead of the statement’s release.

The coalition acknowledged that financial information that Bon Secours shared during the talks does appear to show that Bon Secours is re-investing the millions of dollars received from 340B into Richmond Community and in the Southside Medical Center, which serves low-income residents of Petersburg and surrounds.

(Bon Secours Richmond reported that on average it received about $50 million a year from the 340B program between 2019 and 2022. Those are the only numbers released and were provided by Bon Secours in January at the opening of the new building.)

Based on the discussions, the coalition believes Bon Secours will meet its demand to reinvest 100 percent of savings from the 340B program into improving health care in low-income communities, particularly if it carries out the promises in its newly issued “Community Today, Community Tomorrow: Pathway to Wellness in the East End.

The coalition also praised Bon Secours for its efforts to diversify its workforce and for its pledge to buy more from minority-owned companies.

The coalition was created last fall in the wake of a September 2022 expose by the New York Times that alleged that Bon Secours was shifting 340B savings that it earned through using Richmond Community as a financial vehicle to fund development of health clinics and other operations in wealthier suburbs while hollowing out services at the location on 28th Street in Church Hill. The Richmond Free Press reprinted the article in its Sept. 29, 2022 edition.

The Catholic health system rejected the New York Times’ allegations that tarnished its reputation, brought unwanted criticism from elected officials and generated a community backlash.

Bon Secours’ pushback began gaining traction in January when the hospital system opened a $16 million office building next door to Richmond Community that, among other things, improved wellness and prevention programs and upgraded mental health and addiction treatment services.

At the same time, Bon Secours unveiled the Community Today, Community Tomorrow plan that promised new investments in Richmond Community, including increasing the number of specialists in heart, lung, kidney and other major organs.

The plan also included a Bon Secours promise to develop an urgent-care clinic and to take other steps to improve health offerings and access.

One recent step involves the promotion of Dr. Paula A. Young to the new position of medical director of Richmond Community Hospital in addition to her role as medical director for the Care-A-Van and community outreach.

A Fredericksburg native, Dr. Young, who is Black, said her initial goals include expanding access to prenatal care to reduce the percentage of East End women who do not receive check-ups prior to giving birth and to help make sure that children have the vaccinations and health checkups required by public schools.

Most of all, she said that she will be involved in rebuilding community trust in the offerings available at Richmond Community.

In its statement, the coalition also noted that Bon Secours has begun to remedy concerns about the long waits to move patients in critical condition who are brought to Richmond Community to better equipped hospitals. The most significant action involves Bon Secours freshly signed agreement with the Richmond Ambulance Authority allowing RAA to more quickly transport patients to other locations.

The coalition also noted that Bon Secours “is actively collaborating with our coalition and city agencies to recruit a more diverse workforce” and is seeking to boost the proportion of purchases with Black- and minority-owned firms.

“These are all specific, tangible signs of progress,” the coalition stated, adding that Bon Secours also has promised to provide the public with quarterly progress reports on the progress of the Community Today, Community Tomorrow plan, though those have yet to begin being issued.

Still, the coalition plans to “trust, but verify” that Bons Scours is keeping its promises.

In addition, the coalition is urging Virginia’s delegation to Congress to reform 340B to require beneficiary hospital systems to report their investments into low-income communities.

For more information, please visit The Richmond Free Press’ reprint of The New York Times’ expose “Profits Over Patients” https://richmondfreepress.com/news/2022/sep/29/ profits-over-patients/