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UCI Passes Medicare Agency Audit

The federal review allows continued certification and funding. Meanwhile, fertility-case lawyers meet in court.

January 21, 2006|Christian Berthelsen and Kimi Yoshino | Times Staff Writers

The federal agency performing a top-to-bottom review of UCI Medical Center found undisclosed deficiencies, but no major issues that would result in a loss of certification and Medicare funding, according to letters released Friday.

The review, conducted by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, was prompted by serious problems with the liver transplant program.

"They're not perfect. There's still some issues that need to be addressed, but [the problems] are not to a degree that the entire system is broken," said Steve Chickering, a regional official with the federal agency.

The Times reported in November that 32 people awaiting livers died in 2004 and 2005. In some cases, doctors turned down organs that were successfully transplanted elsewhere. In addition, the hospital in Orange did not have a full-time transplant surgeon on staff even though it led federal officials to believe that it did.

More problems surfaced last week, this time in the bone marrow transplant program. The hospital failed to perform enough transplants in all but one of the last 11 years to meet state standards and withdrew from a state program for the poor after repeated criticism from state regulators.

Also this week, UCI acknowledged it had failed to notify at least 20 women that fertility clinic doctors may have stolen their eggs and embryos and implanted them in other women. Some gave birth. The lawsuits filed by the women and their husbands are just the latest against the university since the fertility clinic scandal became public in 1995.

Lawyers in the fertility cases met in court Friday, and both sides said they were moving toward a settlement.

Though the university has paid $22 million to settle 128 lawsuits stemming from the fertility scandal, a new batch of plaintiffs has emerged in the past several years. They say the university never informed them they may have been victims, despite pledges by UCI officials to do so. The new plaintiffs learned of their possible involvement from lawyers involved in other fertility cases.

The university has resisted settling the cases, saying the statute of limitations has expired, and that the patients should have known of the scandal. At the hearing Friday, lawyers for both sides spent more than an hour in the chambers of Orange County Superior Court Judge Stephen J. Sundvold discussing the first, broad steps toward a resolution.

"I think they're very motivated [to settle] now," said David Ronquillo, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. "All the groundwork has been laid."

Byron Beam, a lawyer representing UCI, said efforts were under way to try to resolve all 29 cases. Lawyers for the alleged victims said they are notifying as many as 75 more women who may have had their eggs or embryos stolen.

The hospital is working to solve its other problems too. A task force investigating the liver transplant program is expected to release its report soon, Chancellor Michael Drake said this week.

The federal regulators, whose survey was prompted by the liver problems, said the hospital was meeting its requirements.

But the weeklong review in December did uncover other shortcomings, including some in the kidney transplant program.

Those problems will not be made public until UCI has had an opportunity to correct them. It must submit a corrective action plan for the kidney transplant program within two weeks, the letter said.

"We welcome the results of the [U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services] audit," UCI spokesman Susan Menning said in a statement:

"We look forward to receiving more detailed information and will use it to help further improve the quality of patient care at UCI Medical Center."

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