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HCA to pay $2 million to settle whistleblower lawsuit over heart surgeries

Lawsuit claims unnecessary treatment at Fairview Park Hospital even contributed to a patient’s death

Susan Morse, Senior Editor

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Hospital giant HCA will pay $2 million to settle a whistleblower lawsuit alleging that medically unnecessary and substandard heart surgeries were being performed at Fairview Park Hospital in Dublin, Georgia, the U.S Department of Justice said Tuesday.

In at least one instance, according to the suit against HCA and two cardiologists that was filed in 2010 and transferred to federal district court in Miami in 2013, medically unnecessary treatment even contributed to a patient's death.

Whistleblower Dr. Michael Fenster, the executive director of the cardiovascular program at the hospital, said he told hospital management about concerns over cardiac procedures that were being done, but his complaints were ignored, according to Attorney Colette G. Matzzie with Phillips & Cohen in Washington, D.C.

"I was extremely frustrated by the response of Fairview Park and HCA officials when I raised very serious concerns about cardiac procedures being conducted," Fenster said in a statement. "I filed the qui tam whistleblower lawsuit as a way to draw government attention to this matter."

No one from HCA could be immediately reached for comment.

In 2006, Fairview Park Hospital had participated briefly in a nationwide study led by Johns Hopkins evaluating whether angioplasty, which is used to open blocked arteries, could be performed safely in small community hospitals without on-site cardiac surgery, according to the law firm's statement.

The hospital stopped participating in the trial following one death within the first three months and conducted an internal investigation into the performance of unnecessary interventional procedures by a doctor, it said.

Fenster was hired in 2008 to run the hospital's cardiology program and to be the principal investigator for the Hopkins study, which the hospital rejoined.

In the following years, HCA reviewed cardiology programs at Fairview Park and other hospitals in the southeastern United States, finding a high number of procedures that raised concerns about whether they were medically necessary or met professionally recognized standards of care, according to Phillips & Cohen.

The majority of the patients were covered by Medicare or Georgia Medicaid.

As whistleblower, Fenster was awarded 28 percent of the recovery, amounting to $560,000.

He is currently on the faculty at The University of Montana College of Health Sciences.

Phillips & Cohen, which represents whistleblowers, said it has recovered more than $11.6 billion in civil settlements and criminal fines.

In a separate report on Tuesday, the Corporate Whistleblower Center said Medicare fraud in the United States exceeds $50 billion dollars a year. It urges medical doctors with well documented proof of Medicare fraud to call them.

"If a company focused on Medicare fraud rewards were a publicly traded company it would be one of the most profitable companies on Wall Street," said the Corporate Whistleblower Center. "We are urging medical doctors with proof of million dollar plus Medicare fraud to call us to discuss what they know, and how they could profit from their knowledge."

In 2016 the Corporate Whistleblower Center will be creating state specific Corporate Whistleblower Centers, it said. It is looking for a well connected medical doctor in each state, particularly those states with large populations, to participate.

Twitter: @SusanJMorse