A $500-million medical fraud case paints ugly picture of caregivers, politicians

MarchCoverFBFor anyone who has doubt about how low physicians and hospitals can stoop for a buck, a city magazine has offered a dismal portrait of breathtakingly bad conduct in a $500 million medical fraud. Prosecutors have accused some powerful California politicians of playing a part in this scandal.

The report in Los Angeles magazine details how a Long Beach, Calif., hospital and other area facilities became veritable medical factories where droves of patients, many of them blue-collar workers injured on the job but lucky enough to be covered under federal and state workman’s compensation programs or private insurace, underwent back surgeries.

The magazine says that many of these patients were given spinal fusions (a costly controversial procedure); many of the operations were medically unnecessary. But worse still: A key figure in the case, who has pleaded to federal charges in exchange for his prospective testimony about the powerful pols, got surgeons to use medical hardware he supplied. An array of civil lawsuits assert that these specialized screws, rods, and plates were shoddily manufactured knock-offs. Patients have packed the courts with lawsuits, claiming the metal junk is breaking apart in their bodies, subjecting them to debilitating pain and significant health risks.

Surgeons, doctors, chiropractors, and the medical facilities where these procedures were performed weren’t exactly blindsided by others’ wrongdoing. The magazine says that authorities estimate that key figures in the case spread around $50 million in kickbacks, doled out in myriad ways, from provision of prostitutes to padded bills.

The case, as a health care scandal, hasn’t gotten as much public attention as it would seem to merit, given its sweep and scale, the magazine notes. But prosecutors have gotten ink because they have accused two lawmakers, who are part of a California political dynasty, of taking bribes to ensure that state laws didn’t change and undercut workman’s comp payments for spinal fusions. The accused have delayed their proceedings repeatedly, though they are scheduled to go to trial this spring.

Los Angeles magazine, which is known for its personality profiles, restaurant reviews, and breezy, list-laden features, deserves credit for devoting the resources to dig into this health care scandal. It’s good to see deeper reporting on health and medical issues in more rather than fewer media outlets. It’s worrisome, as I have written, that the implosion of traditional media now requires audiences to be skeptical and to work at learning how to protect and improve their health.

Media inattention to hospital wrongs

Indeed, HealthNewsReview.org, a nonprofit, independent site that acts as a watchdog on public information about health matters, has posted a dismal look at how little attention media give to hospitals when the U.S. Justice Department investigates and fines them for violations of federal laws.

The site’s researchers looked at media coverage in 18 markets, including the District of Columbia, and found short, scant reporting on a recent incident in which, “508 of the nation’s hospitals in 43 states had been fined more than $280 million for implanting a cardiac device in 10,000 patients in violation of Medicare’s national coverage determination, potentially harming them and wasting billions of taxpayer dollars.”

When reports did appear about this case, HealthNewsReview.org found that hospitals more often that not were dismissive or spun reporters successfully so as to diminish what the site sees as a serious issue.

Sad. If the media don’t play their First Amendment role in informing Americans about the functioning or malfunctioning of their government, including abuse of Medicare money, how will we improve things?

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