Abandoned truck sitting inthe flood water

Managing Allegations of Euthanasia Following Hurricane Katrina


As documented in a New York Times article, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book and now a Netflix docuseries, the days inside Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans following landfall of Hurricane Katrina were truly horrific. Within a week of the evacuation of the hospital, our firm was engaged by LifeCare Hospitals – the owner of the long-term acute care unit that leased space within MMC – to help them prepare for regulatory scrutiny, civil and criminal lawsuits, and an avalanche of international media interest. Just prior to our engagement, LifeCare employees had provided information to state investigators regarding concerns of possible euthanasia in the facility. Of the 45 patients who perished at MMC, 24 were LifeCare patients. The optics – and the realities of what happened in the facility were expected to damage or destroy the LifeCare brand and spur lawsuits for years to come.

As a regional health system planned such a collaboration with one of the nation’s largest health services companies, they engaged our firm to help plan, develop and execute internal and external communications to help minimize disruption. Management of key administrative functions including revenue cycle management and information technology would be transitioned to the new partner to create cost-savings and efficiencies, allowing the hospital team to focus resources on core clinical services. But implementation of the partnership would mean more than 500 health system staff members would be transitioned to employment by the partner company.

Our client needed a change management strategy and communications plan to ensure internal and external audiences understood the benefits of the partnership for employees, patients, providers and the community.

Strategy and Tactics

From the first moment of our engagement, coordination with a host of attorneys was paramount to our success. Together, we developed a communication plan that told the LTAC’s story, contemplated likely scenarios and addressed all audiences. Importantly, we developed a message platform that allowed the company to be authentic, sympathetic, and transparent within reason.

Though local and national media were a primary concern, it was also necessary to communicate with employees, physicians, referrers and those most impacted by the situation: the family members of the deceased. Throughout the crisis, our firm communicated directly and indirectly with all of those audiences, as well as with investigators, regulators and journalists from around the globe. The story was covered by every major news outlet, most notably, by CNN, 60 Minutes, Newsweek, NPR and the New York Times.

Ultimately, 15 talking points and 25 prepared Q&A – all carefully and regularly reviewed by the attorneys – served as our true north through hundreds of media interviews from the events of 2005 through the indictments of 2006, the New York Times article in 2009 and the release of the book in 2013.

Execution and Results

Attempting to quantify positive results after an event as devastating as Hurricane Katrina is difficult. Despite the massive attention on the tragedy, mention of the LTAC – and its corporate ownership – was infrequent. The incident was branded to Memorial Medical Center in the month immediately following the storm. The Lovell/LifeCare strategy of working with the media – on a measured, strategic basis – cemented their placement on the periphery of the spotlight. This positioning allowed LifeCare to pursue a legal strategy of doing the right thing and settling quickly without the white-hot specter of the international media.

Ultimately, our efforts with Karmanos brought their brand to an audience of more than 112 million in our first year.