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Veterans Affairs Reviewing Spine Doctor’s Cases

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The Veterans Affairs hospital in Albuquerque says it has launched a “comprehensive review” of cases handled by a physician accused of injecting patients with liquid plexiglass as a novel treatment for back pain.

The announcement came just days after the Journal reported Dr. Christian R. Schlicht, who once worked at the VA, is a defendant in 47 personal injury lawsuits filed by former patients at an Alamogordo hospital, which is now seeking bankruptcy protection because of the legal claims.

The VA isn’t named as a defendant in those cases, but court records show Schlicht claimed to have “invented” the plexiglass disc restoration treatment in 2004, while he worked at the Albuquerque VA hospital.

From VA spokeswoman Sonja Brown
“Should any veteran treated by Dr. Schlicht at the VA have a specific concern about his or her treatment, we encourage you to contact the Chief of Staff’s office at the (VA in Albuquerque) by calling 1-800-465-8262 or 505-265-1711.”

The lawsuits raise the question of whether VA patients received the unorthodox treatments and, if so, whether VA administrators or physicians were aware of the practice.

Schlicht worked there from 1997 to 2006, when he quit to move to Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo for an estimated $450,000 a year.

VA spokeswoman Sonja Brown said in an email response to Journal questions that VA officials are not aware of any lawsuits against the VA involving Dr. Schlicht’s use of polymethylmethacrylate, the substance injected into discs in the spine to ostensibly act as a cushion and relieve pain. One lawsuit says the treatment wasn’t approved for use on humans but had been used unsuccessfully in experiments on pigs.

Schlicht and other defendants have denied any wrongdoing in court records, and Schlicht’s response also disputed the allegation that the treatment was “experimental.”

Schlicht left Gerald Champion in 2008 and recently went to work as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force.

An Air Force spokeswoman told the Journal this week that Schlicht’s position was “senior flight surgeon,” but said the location of his assignment was “protected” information she couldn’t release.

His attorney, Robert Gorence of Albuquerque, has said only that Schlicht is working “abroad.”

The lawsuits contend Schlicht isn’t a trained or qualified surgeon, but an anesthesiologist who has falsely claimed to be a neurosurgeon.

Patients who received his procedure for back problems were left with more pain, more debility. Some have paralysis or loss of their bowel or bladder functions, the lawsuits allege.

Schlicht once touted the treatment as a less invasive procedure than traditional disc fusion surgery.

For the procedure, the plexiglass was heated and injected into the disc space of patients.

The lawsuits contend it seeped into other areas of the spine causing damage. Once cooled, the cement substance was known to harden and allegedly fracture or impinge on nerves.

One former patient who contacted the Journal this week said his life has been “just hell on earth” since he underwent the treatment at Gerald Champion.

Like other former patients, he has sought help from new doctors who have concluded there is no surgical remedy to alter the permanent damage to the nerves and other areas of the spine.

“I’ve been told to learn to deal with the pain,” said the caller. He relies on opiate narcotics to try to get relief.

No public disclosure

The VA refused to answer Journal questions about Schlicht prior to the Journal’s story published a week ago, and required a Journal reporter to file a formal Freedom of Information request for the information.

Brown in an email on Wednesday said there had been “confusion” about the Journal request and it was determined later that a FOIA request wasn’t necessary.

The VA told the Journal that Schlicht did not perform surgery at the hospital, which last fiscal year treated nearly 46,000 people. Schlicht did perform procedures as an anesthesiology pain specialist, Brown’s email said.

“We are conducting a comprehensive review of all Dr. Schlicht’s cases to determine if he performed any anesthesia pain procedures that did not meet the standard of care,” she stated.

If any cases are identified as such, she stated that the VA has a “full disclosure policy and will take any and all action to ensure appropriate notification and care is provided.”

That notification won’t include any public statements about what the review found, she added.

“Disclosures include protected personal health information, and, as such, are made only to individual affected patients.”

Never a VA surgeon

A letter written to Gerald Champion on Schlicht’s behalf by a private physician recruiter in April 2006 stated that he was “the current Chief of Minimally Invasive Spine Surgery” at the VA. The letter was included as an exhibit to Schlicht’s deposition, which was taken by plaintiffs’ lawyers in June.

Brown’s email said VA records show Schlicht “never held the title or served as chief of `minimally invasive spine surgery.'”

“He held the job position of staff physician and was never appointed or privileged as a surgeon at this institution.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal

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