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Suffering families should not become political pawns

Recent news media attention on the issue of what has become known as “medical kidnapping” by Lehigh Valley Health Network has raised troubling questions regarding the nonprofit health network.

These events raise serious issues regarding justice in the Lehigh Valley. The suffering inflicted upon the minor children, their parents, and families is both palpable and long lasting. I have been present at two meetings where countless affected residents bared their souls in an effort to end the issue. Their bravery is to be commended.

Our families’ suffering, however, should never be used as a political football, nor should they become pawns in any political machinations. It is important to recognize that once a child abuse complaint is lodged, especially by a purported medical professional, county officials are required by state law to take action. Those procedures are largely driven by state law, and deficiencies therein must be addressed at the state level.

It is also important to recognize that child abuse and neglect is a very serious concern in our society, no doubt recently exacerbated by the COVID pandemic. Limited governmental resources must be focused on cases of actual abuse, not used to churn patients at a local hospital.

With that context, there are very troubling concerns to be addressed at the local level, paramount among them is: How could one LVHN doctor, who is a pediatrician, override the decisions of nationally renowned treating physicians, who are board certified specialists, and deprive minor children of life-saving medications and treatment?

Numerous families, including their affected children, have spoken out about the unconscionable decision to remove the minor children from life-saving courses of treatment prescribed by renowned specialists at such august institutions as the Columbia University School of Medicine, and the Cleveland Clinic. The statements were, frankly, gut wrenching and very difficult to listen to. But, listen we must.

Some of the complaints have been dismissed as a difference of opinion between doctors. If that is the case, why shouldn’t the parents’ decision prevail?

In fact, this is not a difference between doctors. That sounds like the “two schools of thought” doctrine often used as a defense in civil professional liability cases. But, even that doctrine requires that the differing opinions come from doctors who are specialists in the same field. You can’t have a pediatrician without the requisite training overriding the decisions of board certified specialists treating rare conditions. That recklessly endangers the lives of minor children.

LVHN has taken an important first step to remedy these errors by removing the doctor involved. However, much more must be done. The culture which has been instilled at LVHN must be rectified. Steps must be taken to retrain personnel to ensure that resources are properly focused upon truly abused and/or neglected children.

Faith has been broken. Nonprofit hospitals made a social compact with our communities – in exchange for not paying taxes such as income and property taxes, they agree to provide for the medical needs of ALL of our communities. Unfortunately, too often, our most needy neighborhoods are bypassed to build underutilized facilities in suburban municipalities. The reason is clear – chasing private insurance patients at the expense of Medicare and Medicaid patients.

As documented in the video “American Hospitals: Fixing a Broken System,” billions of dollars in reserves are amassed while our most distressed communities suffer. You can view the video at https://fixithealthcare.com/watch/. One positive outcome of this tragic episode could be an examination of this social compact, and how we can better help hospitals fulfill their stated mission.

If there is a silver lining to this cloud persisting over our Valley, it is that hopefully LVHN will learn the lessons from this tragedy and institute appropriate reforms. Lehigh Valley Justice Institute is available to facilitate community discussions with LVHN to help them rebuild trust with our communities.

*Joseph E. Welsh is executive director of Lehigh Valley Justice Institute. He is an attorney who has litigated many civil rights cases involving social justice issues. He also serves as an international election observer, having most recently been deployed to Uzbekistan for July’s presidential election.

The foregoing opinions do not necessarily reflect the views of the Editorial Board or the Lehigh Valley Press.