By Katie Thomas and Jessica Silver-Greenberg

September 24th, 2022

In late July, Norman Otey was rushed by ambulance to Richmond Community Hospital. The 63-year-old was doubled over in pain and babbling incoherently. Blood tests suggested septic shock, a grave emergency that required the resources and expertise of an intensive care unit.

But Richmond Community, a struggling hospital in a predominantly Black neighborhood, had closed its I.C.U. in 2017.

It took several hours for Mr. Otey to be transported to another hospital, according to his sister, Linda Jones-Smith. He deteriorated on the way there, and later died of sepsis. Two people who cared for Mr. Otey said the delay had most likely contributed to his death.

“He should have been able to go to the hospital and get the treatment he needed,” Ms. Jones-Smith said. “He should have been saved.”

Ringed by public housing projects, Richmond Community consists of little more than a strapped emergency room and a psychiatric ward. It does not have kidney or lung specialists, or a maternity ward. Its magnetic resonance imaging machine frequently breaks, and was out of service for seven weeks this summer, said two medical workers at the hospital, who requested anonymity because they still work there. Standard tools like an otoscope, a device used to inspect the ear canal, are often hard to come by.

Yet the hollowed-out hospital — owned by Bon Secours Mercy Health, one of the largest nonprofit health care chains in the country — has the highest profit margins of any hospital in Virginia, generating as much as $100 million a year, according to the hospital’s financial data.

The secret to its success lies with a federal program that allows clinics in impoverished neighborhoods to buy prescription drugs at steep discounts, charge insurers full price and pocket the difference. The vast majority of Richmond Community’s profits come from the program, said two former executives who were familiar with the hospital’s finances and requested anonymity because they still work in the health care industry.

The drug program was created with the intention that hospitals would reinvest the windfalls into their facilities, improving care for poor patients. But Bon Secours, founded by Roman Catholic nuns more than a century ago, has been slashing services at Richmond Community while investing in the city’s wealthier, white neighborhoods, according to more than 20 former executives, doctors and nurses.

“Bon Secours was basically laundering money through this poor hospital to its wealthy outposts,” said Dr. Lucas English, who worked in Richmond Community’s emergency department until 2018. “It was all about profits.”