Betsy McCaughey’s Infected Advocacy

A while back, before her stardom on Jon Stewart, the PR wallah for Betsy McCaughey–she of the death panels–emailed me offering an interview about the evils of Obamacare. After I took her up on the offer, the emails stopped coming. Funny that. However, in preparation I asked someone who knows how to do real journalism about what Betsy actually did in her day job. And Michael obligingly found out: -Matthew Holt

Betsy McCaughey’s extravagant claims of eager Democratic euthanasiasts hiding behind health care reform have been exposed,  eviscerated, and enshrined as just plain evil.

Of  course, that’s the kind of behavior you’d expect from Bad Betsy, the hyper-partisan political pit bull. But what about Good Betsy, the founder and chairman of the non-profit Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths (RID)?

As someone who’s been involved in the patient safety movement since the mid-1990s, I’ve admired her pugnacity and plainspokenness. Unfortunately, when I decided to look a lot more closely at RID, it turned out that Good Betsy was not quite “the real McCoy” either. The assertions she makes about herself and her organization teeter at the border between exaggeration and being deliberately misleading.

Interestingly, McCaughey has been trying recently to separate her savaging of the Obama administration from her work on patient safety. In an August 27 email to friends and supporters she wrote:

“What we at RID are doing every day protects all patients, educates all medical professionals, and benefits everyone.  In the midst of the partisan turmoil over health legislation, let’s remember there is no Democratic or Republican version of infection prevention. The impact of RID’s work will endure long after the current controversy fades.”

It’s true that infection prevention is not inherently a partisan issue, but that only raises the question of why McCaughey’s choices for RID’s board have been so ideologically homogenous. They include Elizabeth Whelan, founder and president of a group known for its pro-industry stance on potential environmental hazards and carcinogens;  Donald Tober, a McCain campaign contributor who owns a company that markets a well-known sugar substitute; Charles Brunie,  an investor who is a trustee or former trustee of The American Spectator and two conservative foundations; Henry Buhl, who both founded an organization to help the homeless and is a donor to the virulently anti-tax Club for Growth; and Peter C. Trent, a private investor who has also donated to a Club for Growth affiliate. The only apparent donor to Democrats is a recently added trustee, Adriana Mnuchin, the owner of a luxury spa in Connecticut.

Some might suggest that the board reflects McCaughey’s political aspirations. My guess is the problem was RID being headquartered for its first years in McCaughey’s tony Park Avenue apartment. I think Good Betsy was afraid Bad Betsy would be very upset if she found Democrats sitting in her living room. Still, for a $160,000 annual salary (according to the latest available RID tax return, 2006 data filed in June, 2008), tolerating a few liberals should be bearable.

More interesting is McCaughey’s description of what she actually does. McCaughey, who has publicly attacked the Obama administration’s Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel over his writing in peer-reviewed medical journals, describes herself in a way that might lead you to believe she writes regularly for the same type of prestigious publications.

“Dr. McCaughey’s research on how to prevent infection deaths has been featured on Good Morning America, the CBS Morning Show, ABC’s 20/20, and many other national programs,” says her bio, adding, “Dr. McCaughey is the author of over one hundred scholarly and popular articles on health policy, infection, medical innovation, the economics of aging, and Medicare.”

I’m not sure if a letter to the editor in the current issue of Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology counts as “scholarly,” but my search of Medline found not one article by McCaughey in the medical literature involving the kind of original research and peer review that earned her a PhD in history from Columbia University and the right to use the title, “Dr.” Instead, there are opinion pieces and the kind of research that involves analyzing what others have done.

To be clear: when McCaughey writes that “RID continues to deliver lifesaving research to physicians, nurses and patients,” you have to read carefully. While McCaughey seems to imply that RID’s activities routinely spell the difference between life and death — like, say, what an oncologist such as Emanuel does – what McCaughey really means is that she “delivers” someone else’s research in speeches at hospitals.

Similarly, when McCaughey writes, “After several years of effort, we finally have the first New York State Health Department report disclosing infection rates for every hospital in the state,” you might get the impression that RID played a major role in that accomplishment in its home state. That impression would be misleading, according to my conversations with consumer advocates and others familiar with the process.

That’s a critical point. After all, one of central reasons for RID’s existence is to promote public disclosure of infection rates across the country. But the head of StopHospitalInfections.org, a national campaign run by Consumers Union, recalls McCaughey being involved in only two state efforts – New York and Connecticut. In New York, McCaughey held a press conference and RID ran some public service announcements.
However, says Consumers Union’s Lisa McGiffert, since she’d been told that McCaughey was “not well-respected by the legislature,” it actually would have counterproductive for her to lobby.

Consumers Union, by contrast, sent out model legislation to all states back in 2004, resulting in 30 different legislatures considering bills based on that language. To date, 26 states have infection disclosure laws. The number of states that now have those laws is often cited by McCaughey; the central role of CU (just a short commuter train ride away from RID) is not.

Interestingly, the first state with a disclosure law – and the one whose legislation was the basis for the CU model legislation – was Illinois. That law was introduced by then-State Sen. Barack Obama.

I wonder whether Good Betsy has told Bad Betsy about Barack.

Martin Hatlie, an attorney who was the founding director of the National Patient Safety Foundation, the first broad-based patient safety group, and who now runs Consumers Advancing Patient Safety, told me he has not seen RID collaborate with other patient safety organizations. “I only see McCaughey in the press,” he says.

Jeanine Thomas, who almost died from a MRSA infection and went on to found the MRSA Survivors Network, is more virulent. Although McCaughey testified before Congress in 2008 about MRSA prevention, Thomas is not the slightest bit grateful. Thomas says she confronted McCaughey when both were on a public television panel about RID poaching material from Thomas from their Web site. “It’s all about her, not the cause,” fumes Thomas. “She doesn’t want to get her hands dirty lobbying. All she cares about is media attention.”

Maybe Thomas is just jealous. While her organization is mostly self-funded and operates on a shoestring budget, RID held its annual fundraiser at board member Buhl’s Southampton home. It’s a good cause – at least on paper. What a shame that even when Bad Betsy isn’t bashing health care reform, Good Betsy doesn’t seen to have found the time to do anything of significance.

Michael L. Millenson is the president of Health Quality Advisors LLC and holds an adjunct appointment at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. He is the author of Demanding Medical Excellence: Doctors and Accountability in the Information Age and, earlier in his career, was a Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

14 replies »

  1. Sometimes the company one keeps really does define a person’s integrity. In this case that company is the pseudoscientist Elizabeth Whelan, a woman who’s made it her life’s work to aggravate the suffering of people who are victims of her benefactors.

  2. I, a Republican, have been long disgusted with the self-promotion of McCaughey (I’m not going to call “Dr” as she loves to be called…it’s in freaking constitutional history…come on!) but more than that with her obvious ignorance in healthcare. I’ve been a pharmacist for 25 years and her letters reveal such a lack of understanding that for her to advocate as chairman for RID is laughable. She founded the committee, I believe, mainly as a vehicle for her to lobby for “conservative” beliefs. She has lied before in her advocacy (see the Clinton Healthcare proposal, and the “death panels”) but it is her sheer ignorance that scares me. Not everyone understands what is involved in healthcare, and she counts on that general level of ignorance to seem well-informed. She is one scary lady.

  3. Betsy should be more worried with her own daughters’ eating disorders and drug problems and stop trying to promote herself.

  4. I recently stumbles across this blog today and I agree that this reads more like a “hit piece” on Betsy McCaughey rather than an objective review. Any objective writer might want to research the health care bills McCaughey has read, analyzed and exposed.
    This article also feeds off the mainstream media’s sensationalizing of McCaughey’s comments. Do not fret, much of the rest of the masses have fallen for it – until they learn from Dr. McCaughey about what is actually IN the bill. In fact, union reps (notoriously Left Wing) were up in arms about at least ONE of the points McCaughey found in the Senate bill (which was subsequently adjusted).
    Also, a critical analysis of Dr. Emaunuel’s paper on health care rationing and the potential under a system similar to the Obama and Congresisonal proposals on the health care agenda might be in order as well.
    Also, Dr. McCaughey is the ONLY advocate to speak up from the actual patients’ points of view… while she has, in fact, said the current system needs improvements, any “reform” should not negatively affect the high quality of care Americans receive.

  5. Betsy McCaughey’s positions have always been well researched. Her contributions to the debate are appreciated.

  6. Not sure why this is biased for NOT talking about her conflict with Ezekiel Emanuel. That’s for the Mainstream Media. This is specifically looking at whether she does what she claims she does in regard to campaigning against infections.
    I presented hard evidence that her claims are exaggerated. Claiming “bias” — but presenting no evidence to the contrary except complaining about a different topic — is not a rebuttal.

  7. The way this reads is more of a hit piece of a biased writer rather than an objective review of McCaughey’s positions on the reform proposals coming from Congress.
    It seems that things substantive and critical of the current proposals are glossed over (e.g., Dr. Emanuel’s horrifying statements on geriatric ethics), while minutia on McCaughey’s board of directors is placed under the microscope and the reader is led with a collar as to what to think about the circumstance.
    Very crafty, well written, but this is not reporting. This is very biased and unobjective, and only contributes to the mistrust of what the President is trying to do.

  8. Thank you for truthtelling on this media savy person who in a 24/7 media age has a distinct advantage over serious scientists.
    But ultimately her unsavory practices will bring her down.
    Dr. Rick Lippin

  9. Thanks for the great article and what, I hope, is beginning to expose the posturing as authority this paragon of showbiz/capture the spotlight mentality. Her article on hospital infectious disease transmission in the Nov. 1, ’08 AARP Bulletin just infuriated me with its “pick and choose what supports my point – and screw the WHOLE truth”. I wrote the following to the Bulletin, but of course it didn’t get published. One would think an AARP editor would look more carefully behind the scenes rather than allowing such alarmist crap to be published. DR indeed!!
    “While the basic intent of this recent opinion/article by Betsy McCaughey (to increase awareness) is certainly to be admired, the alarmist character I , as someone who recovered from c. diff in 2001, find a little disturbing. Dr. (Ph. D. in constitutional history and not M.D.) McCaughey makes short shrift of the fact that c. diff is a part of the normal flora of the gut and it becomes rampant usually as a result of heavy and lengthy antibiotic treatment which destroys other flora – hence the explosion of the c. diff. I had a bacterial infection of the spinal cord; germ would not culture, and I was bombarded for 3+ months with many different iv antibiotics. A week after hospital release, I developed c. diff. Flagyl, terrible tasting medicine, took care of it and there has been no recurrence. My wonderful Cleveland MetroHealth nurses and other staff were NOT to blame. Zealots, like McCaughey, with agendas have a tendency to tell half-truths.”

  10. “Still, for a $160,000 annual salary”
    “RID held its annual fundraiser at board member Buhl’s Southampton home.”
    “It’s a good cause – at least on paper.”
    “Good Betsy doesn’t seen to have found the time to do anything of significance.”
    Good gig if you can get it and BS yourself through it. Ah, the benefits of Republican friends. Does the $160k include health benefits?

  11. Betsy! She was the leutinant governor and if I recall was kicked out for her bad behavior..I think she was with Pataki.
    Those who wants to hear her..I have an article on my blog with her interview….She looks plain stupid.
    I think she is well articulate but the problem is how to do you articulate well something that is not what you think it is.
    There was another article, many of you might be interested and that goes to you to Mathhew. It is also on my blog. Someguy at Fox is telling that the Health care reform will increase the odds of terrorism in america. It is quite hillarious and yet sick way to look at the world. You be the judge.