AG Balderas needs to step up on bone-ce­ment cases

Albuquerque Journal - - OPINION -

An Al­bu­querque doc­tor’s stun­ning rev­e­la­tion in lon­grun­ning lit­i­ga­tion over an ex­per­i­men­tal pro­ce­dure in which bone ce­ment was in­jected into the spines of dozens of pa­tients at Gerald Cham­pion Re­gional Hospi­tal in Alam­ogordo is likely to up­end the res­o­lu­tion of nu­mer­ous mal­prac­tice law­suits that ended up in bankruptcy court.

The bomb­shell tes­ti­mony of Dr. Robert Zu­niga of the New Mex­ico Pain and Spine In­sti­tute ap­pears to be a game-changer. He con­tends he warned an ad­min­is­tra­tor af­fil­i­ated with the hospi­tal or its na­tional man­age­ment com­pany that the pro­ce­dure was dan­ger­ous and should be stopped.

And that could al­low big­ger pay­outs to the plain­tiffs who have been wait­ing years for res­o­lu­tion.

That’s all well and good. But if it turns out the hospi­tal or its hospi­tal man­ager, Quo­rum Health Re­sources, con­cealed this warn­ing and con­tin­ued to al­low Dr. Chris­tian Sch­licht — an os­teopath pos­ing as a neu­ro­sur­geon — to per­form the dan­ger­ous pro­ce­dures, then it’s time for the of­fice of At­tor­ney Gen­eral Hector Balderas or fed­eral law en­force­ment to step in.

Per­haps Gerald Cham­pion and the Ten­nessee-based Quo­rum were hon­estly per­suaded by the slick-talk­ing Sch­licht, who claimed this was a ground-break­ing treat­ment with a high suc­cess rate. Or per­haps the hospi­tal of­fi­cials liked the steady stream of rev­enue the pro­ce­dures brought in.

In ei­ther case, the in­juries in­flicted were wide­spread and se­vere enough that about 80 pa­tients and their spouses filed suit. In ad­di­tion to con­stant pain, some pa­tients suf­fered the loss of mo­bil­ity and con­trol of bod­ily func­tions. Other physi­cians who ex­am­ined them said the risk of try­ing to re­move the ce­ment was too great.

Sch­licht and an­other physi­cian he re­cruited to help per­form the surg­eries joined the hospi­tal in a par­tial set­tle­ment of $33 mil­lion in 2012. The hospi­tal took bankruptcy pro­tec­tion in 2011, but its op­er­a­tion wasn’t af­fected. Sch­licht, who has left New Mex­ico, earned up to $450,000 a year dur­ing his stint at Gerald Cham­pion from 2006 to 2008.

Quo­rum, ac­cord­ing to its web­site, is a na­tional firm that op­er­ates or owns hospi­tals in Las Ve­gas, N.M., and Dem­ing, and pro­vides ser­vices to four other smaller hospi­tals in New Mex­ico. It is the re­main­ing de­fen­dant in the case, which is pend­ing in bankruptcy court on the ques­tion of how much in dam­ages the for­mer plain­tiffs should re­ceive.

Mean­while, an­other 12 bone-ce­ment law­suits are set to be tried in state district court in Al­bu­querque next spring.

Zu­niga, in de­po­si­tion tes­ti­mony un­sealed last week by a fed­eral bankruptcy judge, said he was con­tacted in 2007 by an ad­min­is­tra­tor af­fil­i­ated with Gerald Cham­pion. He couldn’t re­call her name, but said she asked him to re­view a dozen or so charts of pa­tients who had re­ceived the bone-ce­ment in­jec­tions. Zu­niga said he was so alarmed he picked up the phone and told the ad­min­is­tra­tor that “this was a dan­ger­ous thing to be do­ing” and that they were “putting pa­tients at risk.” His warn­ing was ei­ther ig­nored or buried as the bonece­ment pro­ce­dures con­tin­ued for an­other year or so, and the in­jury toll mounted and money kept com­ing in.

If that’s what hap­pened, many peo­ple suf­fered sig­nif­i­cant in­jury as part of a profit-driven ca­nard in which those who were hurt had been promised — and paid for — re­lief.

Per­haps th­ese events hap­pened too long ago. Per­haps all this doesn’t amount to a prima fa­cie crim­i­nal case. But Zu­niga’s tes­ti­mony raises enough ques­tions that the AG should look into it. The hu­man toll, and now al­le­ga­tions smack­ing of a cover-up, re­quire it.

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