Lawsuits alleging medical malpractice on a massive scale at hospitals in Las Cruces and Alamogordo raise troubling questions about who is looking out for the safety of patients.
The legal cases are very different on one level.
Dr. Christian R. Schlicht, an osteopath and anesthesiologist, allegedly injected a substance known as plexiglass into patients with chronic back pain at Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center in Alamogordo. Plaintiffs say it was experimental and had been tried unsuccessfully in pigs. Dozens of plaintiffs say they now suffer debilitation, pain and in some cases loss of bowel control.
The hospital’s insurance company also claims the procedure was experimental and therefore not covered by its policy. The hospital says the litigations have forced it to seek protection in bankruptcy court.
The other cases involve Dr. Demosthenis Klonis, an osteopath with specialties in cardiology and internal medicine who has practiced in New Mexico since 2005. He is accused of performing invasive cardiac procedures involving implants, such as pacemakers, that his patients didn’t need, causing them permanent injury.
But in a different area, the situations are similar.
Both doctors were highly paid by their respective employers. Tax forms show Schlicht was one of the Alamogordo hospital’s highest-paid physicians, earning up to $450,000 a year. Klonis was guaranteed a minimum of $500,000 a year for his first five years with the Las Cruces hospital. Both were productive, generating lots of revenue for the hospitals where they worked.
Did those lucrative medical practices lead to lax oversight?
Lawsuits against Schlicht accuse Gerald Champion and its management company, Quorum Health Resources LLC, of allowing him to practice without proper credentials and covering up the unorthodox treatment by assigning it legitimate billing codes so health insurance companies would pay the medical bills.
Other defendants in the Klonis cases include Mountain View Regional Medical Center in Las Cruces; its owners, Community Health Systems Inc. of Tennessee; and Biotronik Inc., which made the electrical devices implanted by Klonis.
All the defendants have denied wrongdoing.
Lawsuits filed by former patients of Klonis also allege unfair trade practices and civil conspiracy. They say pacemaker records that might prove or disprove their claims are missing, and hundreds more may be lost.
One lawsuit alleges that, in addition to billing for his medical services, Klonis was paid by a pacemaker company to do research, teach and lecture. The U.S. Justice Department has been investigating the German company, Biotronik, on allegations of paying physicians consulting fees to use its devices on patients.
Lawsuits against Schlicht, a native of Germany, also allege he botched other back surgeries because he wasn’t qualified or properly certified to perform them.
Society demands the best medical care and newest devices, but the old adage, caveat emptor, stands.
Still, medical consumers should be able to rely on the expertise of their doctors backed up by the oversight of the hospitals.
If these allegations are true, the system failed miserably. And for all the criticism of lawyers by the medical profession, it appears that if patients and the public ever learn the truth, it will be courtesy of the legal system.
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.