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Editorial: AG Balderas needs to step up on bone-cement cases

An Albuquerque doctor’s stunning revelation in long-running 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 bone-cement 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.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.