A conversation with Do No Harm Producer/Director Rebecca Shanberg
"Whistleblowers... are absolutely essential to Congress doing its job of oversight... All of Congress couldn't hire enough staff to know where of the skeletons are buried... We need whistleblowers ... like Rehberg and Bognato [who] are the best of people because they're willing to put everything on the line." Sen. Chuck Grassley
Do No Harm is a documentary about two residents of a small Georgia town - a surgeon and an accountant - who blew the whistle on unethical practices going on at the local hospital, Phoebe Putney Memorial. The film is especially timely, given the current national debate on health care. I'm glad to have the film's producer and director, Rebecca Shanberg with me today. Welcome to OpEdNews, Rebecca. Where did the idea for this film come from?
One of my best friends from college was working for Kekst, the crisis PR firm that Dick Scruggs [class action lawyer who took on the tobacco industry] hired to help publicize his class action lawsuits against the non-profit hospitals.
She started telling me about the work that they were doing, and about the two whistleblowers, and I was fascinated. Over the next two months, she came back to Chicago and I was hooked. We set up a meeting in the Atlanta airport and that's how it all started.
Who was at that initial meeting at the airport in Atlanta?
It was with Charles Rehberg, John Bagnato, and two attorneys who were a part of the national class action law team - David Merideth and John Crongeyer.
Whistleblowers are a special breed. Was this the first time that you worked with any?
Yes, this was the first time I had worked with them. What initially struck me was how much information they had amassed and how it had never been put together in this way before. They showed us a PowerPoint presentation in the Atlanta airport that was mind-blowing - and they were just two guys who stumbled into this because they were trying to figure out why their hospital was so protective of its territory.
What exactly did these two discover?
From the Do No Harm website: Bagnato and Rehberg uncovered millions of dollars in offshore bank accounts and lucrative for-profit businesses under the control of Phoebe Putney Hospital. Board members held exclusive contracts with the hospital and politicians received timely contributions, under shockingly legal practices.
When you got started with the project, Rebecca, did you have any idea of what would ultimately happen to these whistleblowers?
No - we had no idea - we thought that the hospital would make things difficult for Charles and John, but we never imagined that they would end up being indicted.
It must have been fascinating - in a ghoulish sort of way - to be on hand to observe and record how this spun out.
It just kept shocking us - one thing after another. The day after John and Charles were indicted, we were in Georgia and it was terrible to see what it was doing to Charles' family. There is a lot the didn't make it into the film about the indictments - it was a very drawn-out process and exhausting for Charles and John.
Did you have the sense that the actions of the hospital were to intimidate, wear them down, and stress out their families so that they would throw in the towel?
John and Charles both said at the time (and in the film) that they thought the hospital wanted to prevent anyone else from speaking out against them. In some ways, if that was their purpose, they succeeded. Many people in Albany told us that they were afraid of speaking out because of what might happen to them.
And yet John and Charles persevered. Can you give our readers an idea of the price the two paid in order to stand firm against Phoebe Putney, the largest employer in town?
Both were indicted on charges of assault, a felony. If [they were] convicted, it would result in the loss of John's medical license and make it virtually impossible for Charles to practice as an accountant. The charges were false - they were never actually at the meeting in question, and, no assault took place - as was proven by a tape made at the scene.
Their families felt the pressure as well, as they describe in the film, and that took a toll on John and Charles. John was forced to leave his practice because he could no longer practice at Phoebe, and Charles went through a time of enormous stress, worried that his countersuit against Phoebe would bankrupt him.
Where does what happened to your two whistleblowers fit into the current debate on health care reform?
I'm not a policy expert, so I think they best way to answer your question is to share some thoughts on the story put together by one of our incredible partners, The Access Project. I hope this works!
"Do No Harm is a must see for anyone concerned with excessive health care costs or accountability. It exposes the lack of a rational pricing system or transparency in hospital billing and collection practices. In the current economic environment, American tax payers need assurances that tax-exempt hospitals are, in fact, doing no harm especially for patients who are uninsured or underinsured. This riveting account of excessive practices at one non-profit hospital in Georgia is sure to inspire people to take action and demand more oversight and accountability from hospitals that are receiving federal funding to meet community need."
What kind of response have you gotten to your films so far?
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