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.