A Minnesota state senator is calling on Hennepin Healthcare leadership to make swift reforms to its conflict-of-interest practices, responding to revelations of a doctor’s financial ties to the manufacturer of police stun guns.
Sen. Jeff Hayden, DFL-Minneapolis, said he’s asked interim hospital CEO John Cumming to investigate Dr. Jeffrey Ho’s work outside the hospital and to review whether the current ethics policies adequately prevent staff from profiting off work that conflicts with the safety-net hospital’s mission.
“Right now, it appears that there are all kinds of loopholes in the system, and on multiple levels this doesn’t pass the smell test, at least to me,” said Hayden.
Hayden said he contacted Cumming after reading a Star Tribune report detailing Ho’s relationship with law enforcement. In addition to his role as chief EMS medical director for Hennepin Healthcare, Ho is also a sheriff’s deputy in Meeker County and the medical director for Arizona-based Axon Enterprise Inc., the manufacturer of the Taser. Axon pays the hospital about $140,000 per year in exchange for Ho dedicating 32 hours per month to Axon work.
Ho travels the world making presentations on Axon’s products. He has defended Axon or law enforcement agencies more than two dozen times — charging up to $400 per hour for his services as an expert — often when someone says a Taser has killed or severely injured a person.
“This idea that Dr. Ho was going around the country as an expert witness for the Taser company is repulsive to me,” said Hayden in an interview Tuesday. If that’s not a conflict of interest, he said, “then your policy’s wrong.”
In an interview Tuesday, Cumming said Ho has been transparent about his outside sources of income to the appropriate channels.
“Very clearly, Dr. Ho is not in violation of the conflict of interest policy or process we have in place presently,” he said. “And I can say that unequivocally.”
Cumming acknowledged there may be a perception of a conflict of interest from the community, and he plans to explore whether the policy should be updated.
Ho has defended his work in medicine and policing, saying the professions share a common goal of protecting the public.
“People who call my ethics into question don’t know me very well,” Ho said in an e-mailed statement to the Star Tribune earlier this year. “My goal has been to use this work to protect people from injury, save lives in the field and to fairly reimburse my employer for my time spent in this endeavor.”
Hennepin Healthcare has been defending its ethics practices since last June, when the Star Tribune obtained and published the findings of a draft police oversight report. The investigation, from the Minneapolis Office of Police Conduct Review, documented examples of police officers urging paramedics to sedate emotionally disturbed people in street encounters. The report questioned whether community members were being sedated against their wishes when it wasn’t necessary. Some were then enrolled in a study, without their consent, on the effects of ketamine in a pre-hospital environment, of which Ho was a co-author.
Hennepin County Commissioner Mike Opat said he also has renewed concerns after learning the depths of Ho’s ties to law enforcement interests.
“On an hourly basis, he earns considerably more working for Taser than he does for Hennepin Healthcare,” said Opat. “Human nature would suggest that that’s going to have an effect on how one portions their time.”
Hennepin County Board Chairwoman Marion Greene, who is also on Hennepin Healthcare’s board of directors, said the hospital system is “going through a time of change,” which includes searching for a new permanent CEO. Greene said she’s optimistic about the progress so far, including the creation of civilian advisory boards to get more community input on the hospital’s work.
Calling HCMC one of the most important institutions in the region, Hayden said he hopes to partner with hospital leadership as it addresses his concerns over ethics. He said he’s asked the hospital to “come out with a strong statement of how they’re going to review” ethics protocols and on what timeline.