|
|
The Suburbanite
  • Jury to decide hospital suit

  • A jury was to begin sifting through two months of testimony this morning as it finally gets the chance to weigh in on the dispute between Mercy Medical Center and Aultman Health Foundation. On Wednesday, attorneys for both institutions made their final pitches on the now-familiar issues being heard in Stark County Common Pleas Court.

    • email print
  • A jury was to begin sifting through two months of testimony this morning as it finally gets the chance to weigh in on the dispute between Mercy Medical Center and Aultman Health Foundation.
    On Wednesday, attorneys for both institutions made their final pitches on the now-familiar issues being heard in Stark County Common Pleas Court.
    “If you bribe the official in a championship game you don’t get to keep the trophy, you just don’t,” Mercy attorney Lee Plakas told the jury.
    “There is nothing going on here, ladies and gentlemen, but competition,” countered Aultman attorney John Gall.
    Mercy says it suffered $110 million in past and future damages because Aultman Health Foundation and its subsidiaries competed unfairly by secretly paying insurance brokers who brought business to AultCare and McKinley Life and ultimately Aultman Hospital. The payments started in 1997 and continue to this day.
    The Aultman defendants say the broker payments are in line with the foundation’s charitable mission of providing quality, low-cost medical care, and have accused Mercy of trying to cripple Aultman by pursuing a malicious lawsuit.
    DAMAGES SOUGHT
    Following the closing arguments, Judge Frank Forchione sent the jurors home for the night, so deliberations could begin this morning.
    The jury has several issues to consider and to reach a verdict, six of the eight jurors must agree.
    Mercy claims violations of anti-trust law, interference in its business relationships, civil conspiracy, unfair competition, and violations of state laws against deceptive trade practices and a pattern of corrupt activity.
    Mercy is asking the jury to award $110 million in compensatory damages, plus punitive damages which also would entitle it to attorney fees.
    “I know that’s a large amount of money, but a large amount of money was intentionally taken over a decade,” Plakas told the jury.
    Aultman’s unfair competition counterclaim against Mercy is another issue, and Aultman is seeking $1,000 in compensatory and $1,000 in punitive damages, plus attorney fees.
    “Their lawsuit is bankrupt but we’re not trying to bankrupt them,” said Aultman attorney Allen Schulman.
    HISTORIC CASE
    The courtroom gallery was packed with observers, including local officials, curious onlookers, reporters and partisans from each institution.
    Plakas told the jurors this is a historic case, involving huge financial issues, and that their verdict will impact the community, corporations and executives for a generation.
    “They want you to give the stamp of approval to how they became the 800-pound gorilla,” Plakas said of the Aultman defendants, but he warned that doing so will only encourage more companies to influence others with money.
    Through the conversion-support program, the defendants gained $193 million in revenue and added more than 1,700 employer groups and 65,000 individuals to AultCare and McKinley Life.
    Page 2 of 2 - The secret program’s excessive payments and penalties were unheard of in the industry, and were ultimately funded by premiums paid by local workers, Plakas said.
    Throughout the trial, and in closing arguments, the Aultman defendants stressed their role in the county, where they are the largest employer. Plakas told the jury not to be swayed by that issue.
    Another Mercy attorney, Daniel Warren, said the Aultman defendants filed misleading tax returns and other documents in an attempt to hide the payments, sometimes claiming they came from Aultman Health Foundation and other times attributing them to AultCare.
    “It’s a shell game,” Warren said. “You pick up one, it’s always under the other.”
    ABSOLUTE FAILURE
    Aultman’s legal team said Mercy absolutely failed to prove its case.
    The broker payments were not excessive and local businesses said cost and quality, not the amount of money going to a broker, were their main concerns when buying health insurance, attorney Heather Stutz argued.
    In fact, Mercy had to reduce costs in response to competition from Aultman, and both hospitals now have costs below the state and national averages, to the benefit of consumers, she said.
    Mercy also has been hurt by changes in its ownership and management, and carries tens of millions of dollars in debt, while Aultman carries none, said Stutz, who personally attacked Thomas Cecconi, Mercy’s top executive, for suing Aultman.
    “To save his job, to cover up his faults, he filed this lawsuit,” she said.
    Schulman had the last word in Aultman’s argument and asked the jurors to consider the unintended consequences for the community if they side with Mercy.
    The damages sought by the plaintiff amount to the keys to Aultman Hospital, and while the jury might be inclined to give Mercy a little money, a “minor cut” will do only one thing, Schulman said: “It will put the blood in the water and the sharks will be on the way.”
     Trial recap
    Wednesday was the final day of argument in the trial between Mercy Medical Center and Aultman Health Foundation.
    Assigned to Stark County Common Pleas Judge Frank Forchione, the trial has taken the better part of two months.
    Most of Mercy’s claim centers on payments made through confidential agreements by Aultman Health Foundation to nine select insurance brokers starting in 1997.
    Mercy says the payments diverted business to Aultman’s health insurance plans — AultCare and McKinley Life — and Aultman Hospital, costing Mercy past and future damages of $110 million.
    The Aultman defendants deny any wrongdoing, and accuse Mercy of pursuing a malicious lawsuit.
    The jurors were to begin deliberations this morning.