Inaction by regulators as weight loss surgery allegations mount
Several patients have died since 2009 after Lap-Band procedures in clinics in Beverly Hills and West Hills affiliated with the 1-800-GET-THIN marketing campaign, according to coroners' reports, lawsuits and other public documents. (Mariah Tauger / Los Angeles Times / October 23, 2012)
The regulators can't ignore this situation anymore.
The third worker is Ihsan Shamaan, a surgeon whose deposition, filed in a separate lawsuit, makes allegations of fraud, subornation of perjury and dangerous surgical practices in great detail.
The lawsuit from Deuel and Osorio points the finger at Julian and Michael Omidi, whom they identify as the impresarios behind 1-800-GET-THIN and the network of surgical clinics to which callers to the 800 number are referred for weight loss surgery — chiefly implantation of Allergan Inc.'s Lap-Band, a silicone ring cinched around the stomach to suppress food intake.
The Omidis haven't responded to requests for comment on the whistle-blower case. They and other defendants are contesting the separate case, which was brought by relatives of two deceased GET-THIN patients and other plaintiffs.
As I've been reporting for nearly two years, Julian Omidi's medical license has been revoked by the California medical board. In October, Michael Omidi completed three years of disciplinary probation ordered by the medical board.
We've also reported on five patients who have died since 2009 following Lap-Band procedures in clinics in Beverly Hills and West Hills affiliated with the GET-THIN marketing campaign, according to coroners' reports, lawsuits and other public documents.
Shamaan in his deposition says he knows of six or seven deaths that occurred prior to Oct. 6, 2010, when he says he quit working for the Omidis. Because two of the reported deaths occurred after that date, including one still under investigation by the Los Angeles coroner (that of Paula Rojeski, whose death last Sept. 8 occurred after she underwent a Lap-Band operation at the Omidis' Valley Surgical Center in West Hills) the known toll could be nine.
Brian Oxman, an attorney for 1-800-GET-THIN, went before the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors a few weeks ago and declared that the doctors and surgical facilities it deals with are the "best of the best." The conditions described in the whistle-blower lawsuit and by Dr. Shamaan don't resemble the "best of the best." They more resemble a charnel house.
The allegations in the whistle-blower lawsuit and in Shamaan's deposition suggest that a major public health crisis has erupted in California right under the noses of the state medical board and the state Department of Public Health.
The problem isn't that these regulators have been unaware of what takes place in the dark world behind the GET-THIN come-ons plastered all over freeway billboards, on the sides of buses, on the Internet, and on radio and TV. On the contrary, what gives the lawsuits so much credibility is how closely they hew to what regulators have long known or should have known about the Omidis and their business enterprises, based on public records.
The Deuel-Osorio lawsuit offers abhorrent details about unsanitary conditions and unprofessional behavior at the surgery clinics: The reuse of disposable instruments. The lack of adequate supplies. The flouting of sound sterilization practice, exposing patients to the risk of infection.
Yet inspectors from the state Department of Public Health documented such conditions way back in May 2009, following an unannounced visit to the Beverly Hills facility at 9001 Wilshire Blvd. The surgical suite was known then as Almont Ambulatory Surgery Center, but it was then under the control of the Omidis, as it still is, according to the lawsuit.
On that occasion the inspectors needed 22 pages to list all the health and safety violations they found. But the agency didn't bother to shut the facility down. Nor do regulatory records indicate that it ever again conducted an unannounced inspection of that facility or any other under the Omidis' control or management.
Deuel and Osorio allege that staffers at the facilities regularly perform medical duties for which they're not properly trained or licensed. That can't come as a surprise to the medical board. The board in 2007 formally accused Michael Omidi of allowing unlicensed employees to practice medicine at his clinic in West Hills, including allowing them to suture patients and in one case even perform liposuction.
In 2008 the board disposed of these accusations and others, which could have ended Omidi's career, by allowing him to stipulate to violating a couple of legal provisions related to operating in an unaccredited surgical setting. It placed him on three years of probation.
What else have the medical board and public health department been doing all this time? They've been dodging responsibility for keeping an eye on non-hospital outpatient surgical settings like the Omidis'. You see, a state appeals court ruled in 2007 that regulatory authority over clinics owned by a doctor belonged to the medical board, not the public health department. Unfortunately, the medical board says it doesn't have the resources or expertise to be watchdogs over physical facilities, only over doctors. (Public records have identified the doctor-owner of the Beverly Hills and West Hills facilities as Michael Omidi.)
The court decision tore an enormous hole in the state's medical regulatory fabric, so you'd think the regulators and state legislators would have moved heaven and earth to fill it in. But no. In the more than four years since that ruling, nothing's been done to either return regulatory authority to the public health agency, or get the medical board the tools it needs to do its job.