IRVINE — UC Irvine officials announced Friday that an apparently unapproved egg transfer occurred four years ago at a clinic operated by university doctors at Saddleback Memorial Medical Center, bringing a fourth Southern California hospital into the university's human egg-swapping scandal.
Officials at the private Laguna Hills hospital have known since they reviewed records at the Saddleback clinic last September that eggs may have been transferred from one patient to another without the donor's consent, said Erich Wise, an attorney for the hospital.
It is not clear from the records how many eggs were transferred or whether a child was conceived in the 1992 procedure, Wise said.
In any case, he said, officials decided not to make a public announcement to "protect patients' confidentiality." The hospital has not notified either the donor or the recipient, both of whom are believed to live in Mexico, because it did not have current addresses for them, Wise said.
Recently, however, Wise said a "medical professional" at the clinic, whom he declined to identify, recommended that officials seek help from UCI in tracking down the patients. After a physician panel at Saddleback concurred, Saddleback provided UCI attorneys with evidence of the possibly improper transfer April 2.
Since then, the university--which hired a private investigator to track down 70 or more patients who may have been victimized in the scandal--has sent a notification letter to an address believed to belong to one of the patients. But the letter was returned, officials said.
Wise said Saddleback considered hiring a private investigator but had not gotten around to it before the opportunity arose to receive assistance from UCI.
Wise contended it is not certain the transfer was improper, only that it was unusual because the "donor" patient was being treated for infertility when she supposedly gave her eggs to the recipient. That was not common at Saddleback, Wise said, where the clinic had a paid donor program.
Several critics who have condemned UCI for what they consider attempts to cover up the scandal questioned why Saddleback took seven months to come forward.
"They just didn't want to widen the scandal," said Melanie Blum, who has filed 22 lawsuits related to the UCI revelations. "They were obviously trying to contain this." Saddleback already has been sued by Blum and other attorneys who allege it played a wider role in the egg-swapping scandal.
"We haven't really gotten much out of them all along. . . . We've always suspected there was more going on," she said.
"I'm not so sure the story stops with just one [egg transferred without the donor's consent]," said state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), chairman of a committee that held hearings on the scandal last year.
Walter Koontz, attorney for other patients suing UCI, questioned why the university was making announcements about Saddleback.
"It would seem to be clear that UCI used this to deflect blame from themselves," Koontz said.
Wise said Saddleback considered patient rights--not public relations--in its handling of the information. He said Saddleback, which leased office space to the clinic, was responsible for the facility's administrative management but not its medical management. The clinic was not part of UCI.
Patient care was the responsibility of former clinic director Jose P. Balmaceda and his two partners, Dr. Ricardo H. Asch and Sergio C. Stone, Wise said.
"Our obligation was to patients--to notify them and maintain their confidentiality," Wise said. "We are aware that the university's protocol includes notification of the press. We don't agree with that [in the case of a private institution]. . . . It doesn't have anything to do with the ethical obligations of the hospital."
The three UCI doctors have been accused by the university of stealing the eggs and embryos of scores of women and implanting them in others, some of whom gave birth.
All have denied intentional wrongdoing. Balmaceda has returned to his native Chile, and Asch is working in a Mexico City hospital. Stone, the only one of the three physicians to remain in the United States, was arrested Thursday after his indictment on 10 counts of insurance fraud related to his activities at the UCI and Saddleback clinics.
Until Friday, just three medical facilities had reported possible thefts at their fertility clinics: UCI, its former affiliate at AMI/Garden Grove Medical Center and UC San Diego.
Balmaceda's criminal defense attorney, Paul Raymond, said Friday that his client, the clinic's former director, is "unaware of any unconsented transfers" at the Saddleback clinic or anywhere else.
Wise said Saddleback has been unable to determine which doctor performed the transfer, because its copies of patient records are incomplete and are not entirely legible. The original records were seized by the FBI in September, shortly after Saddleback officials' suspicions about the case were aroused during an internal audit.
UCI Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening has asked members of a clinical panel formed in the wake of the scandal at the UCI clinic to try to identify the physician involved.