A surgeon at Chicago’s Sacred Heart Hospital cut a hole in Earl Nattee’s throat on Jan. 3, the day before he died. It’s not clear why.
The medical file contained no explanation of the need for the procedure, called a tracheotomy, according to a state and federal inspection report that quotes Sacred Heart’s chief nursing officer as saying it happened “out of the blue.” Tracheotomies are typically used to open an air passage directly to the windpipe for patients who can’t breathe otherwise.
Now, amid a federal investigation into allegations of unneeded tracheotomies at the hospital, Nattee’s daughter, Antoinette Hayes, wonders whether her father was a pawn in what an FBI agent called a scheme to defraud Medicare and Medicaid.
“My daddy said, ‘They’re killing me,’” Hayes recalled, in reference to the care he received at the hospital.
Based in part on surreptitious tape recordings, an FBI affidavit lays out allegations that a Sacred Heart pulmonologist kept patients too sedated tobreathe on their own, then ordered unneeded tracheotomies for them — enabling the for-profit hospital to reap revenue of as much as $160,000 per case.
The Sacred Heart case is unusual because of the troubling nature of some of the allegations, said Ryan Stumphauzer, a former federal health care fraud prosecutor in Miami who reviewed the affidavit. “A typical indictment might allege phantom billing or improper coding,” he said. “This complaint alleges the hospital and doctors were performing unnecessary invasive surgery to justify false billing.”
It’s also unusual to have recordings from cooperating witnesses, he said, “but it is always very difficult to challenge a physician’s judgment.”