Family members say Lincolnton man died in hospice care from drug overdose, not cancer

The videos Jeff Coffey watched shortly after his father died in April made him feel uneasy.

In late March, Coffey had shot the footage on a daylong outing with his 77-year-old dad who had just gone under hospice care for pain management.

Clinard Elliott “Bud” Coffey of Lincolnton declared he’d never felt better as they visited scenes from the Rhodes Rhyne mill community of his childhood. As Jeff Coffey watched the videos, he couldn’t square his vibrant “Pop” with the person who died on April 6 from what a hospice doctor listed as kidney cancer.

Later, as Coffey examined medical records, he concluded his father had died from rising doses of morphine and other drugs. When he learned that a Washington Post reporter was writing a series on the hospice industry in America, Coffey contacted him.

After months of research, the story by Peter Whoriskey appeared in Friday’s edition of the Post. On Thursday, Coffey and other family members held a news conference in Lincolnton, calling for legislation to prevent something like this happening again.

“No one meant to kill my dad,” said Coffey, 55, of Sherrills Ford. “But clearly the apparent lack of following even the minimum standards of basic health care have direct and devastating results.”

A Lincoln County native, Bud Coffey worked 30 years with the N.C. Department of Corrections. After retiring at age 63, Jeff Coffey said his dad got on Facebook every day, worked crossword puzzles in The Charlotte Observer and was a huge Carolinas Panthers fan.

“He had two favorite basketball teams,” Coffey said. “The Tar Heels and whoever was playing Duke. He enjoyed his life.”

Coffey said a primary doctor listed Bud Coffey’s health problems as chronic back pain, an aortic aneurysm and “unspecified kidney problems.” The diagnosis didn’t mention cancer, he said.

In March, Coffey said his father complained that the two prescription medications he was taking for pain weren’t effective.

The primary physician referred him to hospice for pain management, Coffey said.

While his father remained at home, Coffey said nurses from Community Home Care and Hospice in Statesville came to the residence several times a week.

At some point, Coffey said his father’s diagnosis changed to Stage 4 kidney cancer.

Early on under hospice care, Coffey recalled his dad saying “he felt like a teenager. He was very positive and upbeat.”

On April 1, when Bud Coffey rated his pain at levels 2 to 3 on a scale of 1 to 10, Jeff Coffey said muscle relaxers were added to his father’s list of medications.

The next day, he said documents show that the number of morphine pills was doubled.

Coffey said his 77-year-old mother was asked to administer liquid morphine to her husband and gave him 385 milligrams within 20 hours.

“They believed he was dying,” Coffey said.

Bud Coffey died peacefully at 12:30 a.m. on April 6.

That night, his son watched the videos and became disturbed.

He felt the images of his dad didn’t look like someone with Stage 4 kidney cancer. Shortly afterwards, Coffey’s wife told him about the Washington Post’s ongoing series about the hospice industry.

According to reporter Whoriskey’s story, experts say the industry is booming but that the boom “has been accompanied by what appears to be a surge in hospices enrolling patients who aren’t close to death, and at least in some cases, this practice can expose the patients to the more powerful pain-killers that are routinely used by hospice providers. Hospices see higher revenues by recruiting new patients and profit more when they are not near death.”

Whoriskey wrote that when Coffey was formally enrolled at the hospice “his diagnosis appears to have changed. The hospice’s insurance verification form lists the diagnosis as ‘kidney cancer,’ according to a copy of the document. For the hospice to be reimbursed by Medicare, the diagnosis must involve a terminal condition that is likely to lead to death within six months. Then, throughout the rest of his two weeks under hospice care, workers for the hospice referred to ‘the cancer,’ his family said.”

The Washington Post reported that a lawyer for the hospice company wouldn’t comment on the case without authorization from Coffey’s family.

“When Jeff Coffey authorized the company to comment, however, the attorney said that the company would not comment because the Coffey family had hired an attorney in preparation for a lawsuit,” the paper reported.

The attorney for the hospice company couldn’t be reached Thursday.

Coffey described his search of medical documents as “very intense.”

“I cried and cussed,” he said. “I screamed and yelled. I was up at 5 a.m. going through records.”

Coffey has filed reports with the N.C. Medical Board and Lincolnton Police Department. A police spokesman said the department is waiting on guidance from the medical board before any investigation could take place.

While Coffey said he was advised by his attorney not to “try the case in the media ... to be fair, the law provides that those who are negligent in providing healthcare should be held accountable in order to protect the public, and the means to do that is a malpractice lawsuit.”

“Many healthcare professionals who have reviewed the records have encouraged us to bring this to light,” he said. “And we feel that we have a moral obligation to do that.”