John Oliver tackled a healthcare story on Sunday’s “Last Week Tonight,” and it was a thing of beauty.
During his longest segment of the show, Oliver explained what was going on at DaVita Inc., the country’s largest for-profit kidney-dialysis company. It’s a firm with a $13 billion market cap that hauled in nearly $800 million in profit in 2016, thanks in part to the rise in America of diabetes and heart disease, which result in kidney complications.
The company’s profit came in part because, in the 1970s, President Richard Nixon signed legislation approving government funding for all dialysis treatment for Americans.
“Treating end-state kidney disease takes up 1% of the federal budget,” Oliver said. “Think about it. We devote 2% of the federal budget to the Department of Education, and that helps you figure out what a percent is.”
So companies like DaVita — helmed by CEO Kent Thiry, an enthusiastic man so obsessed with the movie “The Man in the Iron Mask” that he often wears a Musketeer outfit in company meetings and videos that Oliver says makes him look like the “third-saddest waiter at Medieval Times” — have been incredibly successful.
What Oliver takes issue with, however, is what’s happening to DaVita’s patients. Both they and former employees have described DaVita as something like a dialysis factory where patients are rushed on and off machines, sometimes before the process is complete.
“It was all about numbers,” said one former employee. “You want to get them in, get them on the machine, and get their dialysis done.”
Thiry himself has made comments suggesting a lack of focus on patient outcomes.
“I almost never refer to patients in the entire thing because it’s not about the patients,” he said to business students at UCLA in a clip Oliver played. “It’s about the teammates. … If I had 1,400 Taco Bells and 32,000 people who worked in them, I would be doing all the same stuff.”
Because of that Taco Bell speed, the company has had issues with infection and disease control in its its facilities across the country, according to Oliver. California is passing legislation to strengthen oversight of dialysis centers like DaVita, which currently only need to be inspected every six years. Hospitals must be inspected every two, and nursing homes annually. We should note that these centers don’t require doctors to be on site either.
We should also note, as Oliver did, that the company has paid close to $1 billion in settlements over the last five years for transgressions ranging from paying doctors kickbacks in exchange for referrals, to overcharging Medicare for medicine.
DaVita has yet to respond to our request for comment.
You can watch the full segment below: