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Attorney general says profits prioritized over patients, files lawsuit

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(The Center Square) – From merger approval four years ago to lawsuit against them, North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein’s Department of Justice office has filed a lawsuit against HCA Healthcare.

He made the announcement on Thursday.

A Buncombe County Superior Court is being asked to find the company violated its agreement with the state when it purchased the hospital in 2019. If successful, the court would compel HCA to improve staffing levels and services to what they once were.

As part of approval for HCA’s purchase of Mission Hospital and arrangement with beneficiary Dogwood Health Trust, HCA agreed to health care protections for patients that required the company to maintain certain emergency, trauma, and oncology services until 2029.

In recent years, the Justice Department has received over 500 complaints that suggest HCA isn’t living up to the agreement, and the lawsuit asks the court to compel them to do so.

The issues date back to 2020, when the attorney general first raised concerns about HCA’s charity care policy required under the agreement, which was followed by the Justice Department flagging potential breaches of the agreement the following year.

The attorney general again warned of potential violations when HCA closed the Mission Cancer Center Pharmacy earlier this year. That was followed by contractor Messino Cancer Group announcing in September it would no longer treat adults with leukemia and lymphoma at Mission Hospital because HCA has failed to provide adequate staff and resources.

The lawsuit reads in part, “Responsibility for this downward spiral rests entirely with HCA. For instance, long wait times at the hospital’s emergency department are not because of an inadequate number of beds, but because of HCA’s profit-focused choices regarding how to staff the beds it has.”

The complaint says the agreement forbids HCA prioritizing “paying dividends to its shareholders over honoring its legal commitments” to provide health care services to the people of western North Carolina.

The lawsuit seeks a ruling declaring HCA breached its contract, a permanent injunction preventing future breaches, and an order requiring HCA to restore services to 2019 levels.

Nancy Lindell, spokeswoman for Mission Health, issued a statement to the media that acknowledged the lawsuit but countered the hospital continues “to meet, and often exceed, the obligations under the Asset Purchase Agreement that the attorney general approved at the time of our purchase.”

Lindell said the company intends “to defend the lawsuit vigorously” and noted an independent monitor “confirmed our compliance with that agreement during its most recent review.”

“Despite the state not allowing important expansions at Mission Hospital, we will continue to fight for critical access to health care services for the people of Western North Carolina,” Lindell said.

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