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May 1, 2023

Carol Burger Thinks Healthcare Itself Needs Treatment

The owner of a chain of respected clinics speaks out

By Ed Goldman

Carol Burger wants to refer healthcare to rehab. As the owner of Burger Rehabilitation, which she founded in 1978, she has some ideas on how to treat the industry’s multiple injuries and growing pains. 

Burger’s company runs 15 clinics in five Northern California counties and has both in-hospital and outpatient contracts with a number of hospitals. This means she deals with a plethora of regulations, insurance companies, hospital administrators and, of course, thousands of patients for whom “continuum of care” may sound like a distant planet—because, in most cases, they “may receive initial care at a hospital then get referred somewhere else for acute care and then to other treatment centers for follow-up care. It’s extremely rare that the same physician would be tracking a patient through all of this.” 

Edgy Cartoon

Carol Burger

She continues: “You have to hire armies of bookkeepers and accountants just to keep up with the paperwork. Almost every hospital or insurance agency wants things done just a bit differently. I think we spend as much time processing patients as treating them.”

She says the healthcare environment “is changing so much—and too fast. It needs to do three things: define, align and simplify.” That’s her mantra and the message she takes to her peers and politicians.  

Burger is a practicing physical therapist herself, but also has impressive business and industry creds. She’s been recognized with a Sacramento Business Journal Best in Business award and by the Sacramento Metro Chamber of Commerce as the region’s Businesswoman of the Year. She’s on the advisory board of the School of Physical Therapy at Sacramento State, which she attended, along with Loma Linda University, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in physical therapy. “Several years later,” she says with a laugh, she went to the University of San Francisco, where she took a master’s in public administration. The latter effort, she says, “was so I could better understand the processes I had to deal with as a business owner in the healthcare field.” 

She’s also a member of the National Association in Support of Long-Term Care, the American Physical Therapy Association and the California Association of Health Facilities, from which she garnered a Distinguished Service award.

Our chat is taking place during the noon hour at her immaculate and bustling facility in Rancho Cordova. Nearly every room is in use so Burger leads us into a smallish one where she has me sit on what I presume would be the therapist’s chair as she sits on the treatment table. I recognize that for what it is because of the slot cut at one end for patients to rest their chins as they lie on their stomachs undergoing massage and manipulation—and because I spent a lot of time lying on one following an auto accident in late 2007 and a bout of osteomyelitis in 2009, both of which provided me with a gag I probably over-use: “My back goes out more often than I do.”

One of Burger’s causes is to try to kill a cash-cow statute for lawyers, PAGA—the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004—in the next general election. Part of California’s Labor Code, it enables employees “to file lawsuits to recover civil penalties on behalf of themselves, other employees, and the State of California for Labor Code violations,” according to the state government website.

“In practice, it’s meant that if one of your employees worked overtime and complained about it—I think the word they use is ‘aggrieved’—lawyers can gather up all of your employees in that category and bring a huge civil suit, rather than have it handled on an individual basis,” Burger says. 

She pauses and asks, not the least bit rhetorically nor admiringly, “Do you realize we’re the only state in this country that has a law like this?” While she’s no doubt angry, she has a soft, mellow voice and an easy smile. You get the idea that her demeanor alone could alleviate your aches and pains before you received treatment.

Burger and her husband of 37 years, retired general contractor Jim Van Houten, have five children. “Two were his, two were mine and one is ours,” she says with a smile. When asked about retiring one day, she acknowledges that she’s been approached “quite a few times” by companies wishing to buy her business and says she’d “love to do more traveling—but I really love my work. Every day is different and when we help people, it’s personally very gratifying.” Maybe, one concludes, even therapeutic.

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Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).