Phoebe Factoids controversy re-emerges on film

By Len Kiese - bio | email

ALBANY, GA (WALB) - The infamous Phoebe factoids controversy has re-surfaced--this time in a film.

A documentary by a Chicago production company focuses on how big not-for-profit hospitals, including Phoebe, deal with uninsured and under-insured patients. Phoebe administrators say it's not factual.

The film is called "Do No Harm". "The whole thing started off with those faxes," said Albany surgeon Dr. John Bagnato.

It's a documentary with a series of faxes called the Phoebe Factoids at the center. "They could have been ignored or they could have taken them as legitimate criticism," said Bagnato, "instead they went on an illegal witch hunt and that's where we are today."

In the film you see some of the events following that faxed criticism of Phoebe's administrators and financial practices.  Dr. John Bagnato and his then office manager Charles Rehberg were booked into the Dougherty County Jail and indicted after it was revealed they were the anonymous faces behind those Factoids.

"I was sort of fascinated by their story because of who they were," said Rebecca Schanberg. Film director Rebecca Schanberg describes the film as a story about two whistleblowers taking on hospital corruption and the plight of the uninsured.

"I think what we'd like to do is bring to light the fact that hospitals in general, although they can take care of people and be really great, their financial practices need to come in line with their medical practices," said Schanberg.

"The documentary is an accurate portrayal of what went on down here," said Bagnato.

Years later, Dr. Bagnato remains adamant about his thoughts on health care practices in Albany. "What I've learned over the years in analyzing the not for profit hospitals and the uninsured is that what's going on in Albany is going on statewide and nationally," said Bagnato.

"Do No Harm" attempts to take a look at those issues with a focus on the city of Albany and Phoebe. "The documentary is nothing surprising for them," said Bagnato.

"You know I was surprised that this film which we thought was dead was even completed," said Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital President/CEO Joel Wernick.

Wernick has taken a look at "Do No Harm" and says there's very little that has basis in fact. When asked if there was anything in the film he thought was factual he said, "The name of the hospital."

Instead, Wernick feels it's the rehashing of an old story with an agenda to influence false public opinion. "Any claim that we're insensitive to indigent patients is without any merit whatsoever. Once again, the court system sustained that position," said Wernick.

Several lawsuits have been dismissed but the healthcare cost debate continues. "We in Albany know what the ramifications of the cost of healthcare are. We've seen Cooper Tire close. We've seen Merck close. We've seen P&G downsize and all of these companies say in part, the problem is healthcare costs," said Bagnato.

"If you talk to any of the people involved with the recent closings and ask the question 'did the cost of healthcare have anything to do with it?' you'll get a very consistent answer and the answer is no," said Wernick.

One thing is certain--"Do No Harm" will be seen all over the United States. "It's being picked up by those who would like to create some rallying cry for health reform based upon one inaccurate fax," said Wernick.

"The negative publicity that has occurred over there has more to do with what they did and less to do with what we did," said Bagnato.

Dr. Bagnato thinks this will re-ignite a national debate about the cost of healthcare. A screening will take place in Atlanta next month. The filmmaker says they're working on one here in Albany also.

Joel Wernick claims the production was paid for by a "Scruggs Cartel" to portray the hospital poorly. Richard Scruggs is an attorney who sued Phoebe. He's now in prison for trying to bribe a judge.


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