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Officials rip health chain’s aggressive bone-marrow campaign

By Thomas Caywood
Worcester Telegram & Gazette / December 17, 2010

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WORCESTER — It’s a well-established advertising principle that sex sells.

But UMass Memorial Health Care Inc.’s use of pricey models in short skirts and spike heels to entice people to sign up for its bone marrow registry, while allegedly misleading consumers about the cost of testing, has drawn scrutiny of the hospital chain from authorities in New Hampshire.

Condemning the practice as a scam involving “suspect marketing and billing practices,’’ New Hampshire Attorney General Michael A. Delany yesterday announced a major probe of shopping-mall bone marrow donor recruitment drives by UMass Memorial and its subsidiary, the Caitlin Raymond International Registry.

James T. Boffetti, New Hampshire senior assistant attorney general, said in a telephone interview yesterday afternoon that his office will investigate potential criminal violations of New Hampshire’s Consumer Protection Act as part of a joint probe with the state’s Insurance Department.

Caitlin Raymond staff and the models from a Boston agency, which charged UMass Memorial between $40,000 and $50,000 a week for about a year and a half, told potential donors that the DNA test required to join the registry did not cost anything, Boffetti said.

However, UMass Memorial billed the potential donors’ insurance companies as much as $4,300 per test, far more than the roughly $100 charged by most labs, according to Boffetti.

The DNA samples tested by UMass Memorial were collected at shopping centers, sporting events, and elsewhere by swabbing the inside of a potential donor’s cheek, he said.

Caitlin Raymond agreed to suspend all donor recruitment efforts in New Hampshire as of yesterday morning, he said.

Massachusetts law enforcement officials also are reviewing the allegations and have been in contact with New Hampshire authorities, said a spokesman for state Attorney General Martha Coakley.

UMass Memorial spokesman Robert Brogna declined to answer any specific questions about the embattled recruitment program. Instead, he issued a written statement praising the work of the bone marrow registry, and indicating that the hospital chain is cooperating with law enforcement authorities in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Boffetti declined to identify the Boston modeling agency hired by UMass Memorial, but said agency officials told New Hampshire investigators that it billed the hospital chain tens of thousands of dollars a week.

“Upwards of $40,000 a week for a year and half? Do the math,’’ Boffetti said.