Last Week Tonight with John Oliver focuses its study of the kidney dialysis industry on Denver-based DaVita. A video and more below.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver focuses its study of the kidney dialysis industry on Denver-based DaVita. A video and more below.
HBO via YouTube

John Oliver Says Denver Kidney Dialysis Giant DaVita Owes Apology to Taco Bell

Update below: The main report in Last Week Tonight With John Oliver's May 14 episode tore into the kidney dialysis industry, with a particular focus on Denver-based DaVita, a company the HBO host said owes an apology to Taco Bell because of CEO Ken Thiry's comparisons between his firm's business practices and the approach of the fast food giant.

The sprawling, 24-minute-plus piece, on view below in its entirety, is the second Last Week Tonight investigation in just over a month with a strong Colorado flavor. The April 2 edition took on marijuana laws in Colorado and beyond, spotlighting several stories previously covered in this space.

DaVita's decision to move to Colorado was big economic news here circa 2009, and the construction of its local headquarters has stood out among many big Denver projects in recent years. The building's size and scale makes sense given DaVita's success. Last Week Tonight points out that the company generated $789 million in profits last year. Moreover, of the approximately 7,000 out-patient dialysis clinics currently operating in the U.S., around 70 percent of them are owned either by DaVita or its main competitor, Fresenius Medical Care.

The man credited with DaVita's rise is CEO Ken Thiry, who Oliver describes as a "showboating musketeer," and for good reason. Multiple videos of company events show Thiry dressed in medieval garb while making splashy entrances; he rides in on a horse at one bash, does tumbling moves to Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll" in another. The former Bain & Company powerhouse's choice of wardrobe is influenced by his love for the movie The Man in the Iron Mask, and he gets a jolt out of getting his employees to chant, "All for one and one for all."

But Oliver and company don't portray the firm in heroic fashion. Instead, they suggest that DaVita operates its clinics in assembly line fashion, shuttling patients in and out as quickly as possible in order to maximize profits. "DaVita is run like a volume business," Oliver notes.

This approach is underscored by a Thiry address at UCLA in which he says his firm operates on the same principles as Taco Bell — "the exact opposite of a health-care company," Oliver points out.

DaVita CEO Kent Thiry.
DaVita CEO Kent Thiry.
HBO via YouTube

Oliver also provides info about numerous settlement deals involving DaVita, including one for $389 million that's described in a 9News clip starring reporter Noel Brennan. That payout, along with two others for $489 million and $55 million, respectively, add up to nearly $1 billion.

Still, the most damning accusation in the episode involves the alleged practice of inadequately informing patients that their survival rates are much higher if they get a kidney transplant instead of remaining on dialysis. Indeed, an undercover recording from a New York-area clinic made by a Last Week Tonight staffer earlier this year finds a DaVita staffer essentially attempting to dissuade a potential patient from going the transplant route because it would mean leaving the "community" of folks undergoing dialysis treatments.

Toward the end of the item, Oliver acknowledges that Last Week Tonight put DaVita center stage in part because "they have the most patients and Ken Thiry dresses like an idiot all the time." Still, he adds, "The care of America's kidneys is way too important to be treated like a fast food experience." He then says DaVita owes Taco Bell an apology, saying, "Taco Bell, I am truly sorry that a middle-aged musketeer dragged you into this."

At this writing, DaVita, which denies any wrongdoing and defends its business model as providing exemplary care for patients, has not responded to the Last Week Tonight report.

Update: As we noted in our original post, we reached out to DaVita for a comment about the Last Week Tonight report. We didn't receive a response — but the company did get back to Fox31, sharing the following statement: "We are proud of our differentiated clinical outcomes, our teammates’ dedication to patient care and our strong culture. Our teammates are passionate about delivering high-quality patient care and enabling our patients to live fulfilling lives. We will continue to advocate for our patients and invest in our teammates and our culture."

Here's the segment.

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