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Charges That Pediatrician's Office Diluted Vaccines Shock Town

Health: San Rafael doctor with loyal following denies scheme to water down inoculations for profit. Some parents are incensed, others incredulous.

March 13, 2000|ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — To his young patients and their parents, William Liebman was the sort of physician who inspired loyalty. Many likened him to an old-time country doctor, talked of his indulgent nature with children, his generosity with his time. Most everyone called him Dr. Bill.

Then came the shocker. Marin County prosecutors charged the balding, soft-spoken pediatrician with three felony counts, alleging that his office diluted vaccines meant to protect young patients against hepatitis, whooping cough and other illnesses. The motive, prosecutors surmised, was to hike profits.

Liebman has denied the accusations in what state medical officials say is the first such case against a California doctor. National experts say they have never heard of a pediatrician anywhere charged with watering down vaccines.

Parents in this affluent suburb just north of San Francisco have reacted with a mix of disbelief, outrage and fear.

On one side, more than 90 families have joined a class-action lawsuit against the 59-year-old doctor and his practice.

"It's hard to believe anyone could do this, but then I look at the facts," said Maria Storniolo, whose 4-year-old son, Adrian, recently flunked a test for two different immunizations that had been administered at Liebman's office. "The facts are my son wasn't immunized for two horrible diseases."

The pediatrician also has drawn a flood of supporters who refuse to believe he took part in any scheme to water down medicine.

They have plastered the walls of his San Rafael office with laudatory letters, launched a defense fund and held a candlelight vigil, and they rallied with placards when Liebman appeared in court. More than 40 nurses signed a letter praising Liebman and sent it to the local newspaper.

The charges, supporters say, simply don't fit the man. They contend that there is little monetary gain in diluting vaccines and note that public health officials have found no evidence of suspicious illness among Liebman's patients.

"None of it makes sense," said Linda Curry, a parent who helped organize the defense fund. "This is a man who has devoted his life to children, six days a week, evenings. Why would he jeopardize the health of his patients, these children he loves dearly?"

Liebman has stopped giving vaccinations under an agreement with the Medical Board of California, which is reviewing the allegations for possible discipline. The doctor continues to practice at his San Rafael office in an upscale shopping mall and at a smaller outpost up the freeway in Novato.

On a recent morning at his main office, a steady line of families came in for appointments. Children frolicked on the Berber carpet, eyed a collection of teddy bears on a shelf and romped through a plastic playhouse. Supporters say the doctor has lost about 10% of his patients in recent months.

Liebman and his lawyers declined to discuss the case. In a letter to patients after his arrest Thanksgiving week, Liebman denied adulterating vaccines and called the charges "false and outrageous." If the medicines were diluted, he said, "someone else must have done this."

Prosecutors in the Marin County district attorney's office say as many as 2,500 children may have been affected.

Their probe began in May when a nurse at Liebman's office contacted Clay Hoffman, a district attorney's investigator.

The nurse told Hoffman she had been marking the level on half-empty vaccine vials, then would find the glass tubes mysteriously full the next day, according to an affidavit filed by prosecutors. The rubber stoppers bulged from extra air forced in, she said.

When the doctor left on military reserve duty last year, the office went through more hepatitis B serum in his two-week absence than it had in the proceeding three months, prosecutors said.

Another employee told the investigator that Liebman was "cheap," and alleged that the doctor would break protocol by reusing urine cups and the oxygen hoses needed for a machine that helps asthma patients.

Investigators searched the doctor's offices in June and seized 21 vials of vaccines. A federal lab found that nine had been adulterated, according to the affidavit.

During a three-month period last year, Liebman's office ordered 10 doses of a vaccine that guards against diphtheria and several other illnesses, but billed patients or their insurers for 20 times that amount, prosecutors alleged. The doctor used 36 milliliters of hepatitis B vaccine over the same period, but billed for more than five times as much, the affidavit said.

Since the charges were filed Nov. 23, Marin County has been gripped by the case.

Letters have flooded the local newspaper and TV news has covered the case extensively. The case is a topic of cocktail party debate. Everyone seems to have an opinion about Dr. Bill.

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