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Erin Brockovich Takes Role as Plaintiff in Medicare Suits

June 07, 2006|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

Erin Brockovich has a famous name, Hollywood good looks, an agent and a new cause: Medicare.

The onetime legal assistant, whose environmental crusade against a utility company inspired a hit movie starring Julia Roberts, has lent her name as plaintiff in lawsuits against several California hospitals and convalescent homes. The suits allege the facilities pocketed millions of taxpayer dollars while covering up their own mistakes.

Since the 2000 movie that earned Roberts an Oscar, Brockovich has made her rounds in the lecture circuit, book circuit, television show circuit and the legal circuit. William Morris Agency manages her talent. Law firms manage her legal cache.

Her seven lawsuits, filed Friday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, allege that healthcare companies are charging Medicare, the federally funded health plan for seniors, to treat illnesses they helped cause by medical error or neglect.

The lawsuits do not involve specific allegations of wrongdoing but seek instead to find evidence of such treatments, arguing that Medicare should be reimbursed.

One defendant called the lawsuits a publicity stunt by a "celebrity plaintiff."

"These are the kinds of baseless lawsuits that contribute to the high cost of healthcare today," said David Langness, a spokesman for Tenet California, a division of hospital operator Tenet Healthcare Corp., a target of Brockovich's lawsuits.

In addition to reimbursement for Medicare, Brockovich and her attorneys could potentially win millions of dollars if the lawsuits are successful.

"This is what I do," the 45-year-old Brockovich said. "I am an advocate. It would be as odd for me to turn down a cause as it would be for Julia Roberts to not do another movie."

Brockovich is suing on behalf of the United States under a law that allows citizens to bring grievances in the government's name. Her attorneys also have filed lawsuits in New Jersey and Florida using others as plaintiffs, said attorney James L. Wilkes of Wilkes & McHugh in Rancho Palos Verdes, one of two law firms driving the nationwide legal effort.

The other defendants in California include Adventist Health, Country Villa Service Corp., Catholic Healthcare West, Kindred Healthcare Inc., Longwood Management Corp. and Mariner Health Care Inc.

The allegations focus on reports by the federal government that medical errors increase costs for Medicare. For example, if a hospital operates on a wrong body part, Medicare may end up paying for it as well as the surgery on the correct body part. Medicare may also foot the bill if a patient becomes dehydrated or contracts an infection in the hospital or convalescent home.

Federal health officials estimate that medical errors may account for more than $9 billion in healthcare costs annually. They are pushing for quality control measures to curb such expenses.

Medicare officials declined to comment Tuesday on Brockovich's lawsuits.

Brockovich served as a consultant in a suit against Pacific Gas & Electric Co., which agreed in February to pay $295 million to settle allegations it had contaminated groundwater in and around the town of Hinkley, Calif. The tiny, windblown community 125 miles northeast of Los Angeles was the setting of a separate 1996 suit over a similar issue that led to a $333-million payment by the utility company and inspired the Universal Studios movie about her.

Brockovich holds her base at the law firm of Masry & Vititoe in Westlake Village. The firm was founded by the late Edward Masry, who helped bring the lawsuits against PG&E and is also featured in the movie.

Brockovich and Masry also brought a lawsuit three years ago against various oil companies on behalf of former Beverly Hills High School students who were allegedly exposed to cancer-causing chemicals left on campus from oil operations. The trial is scheduled for October.

Brockovich said she was moved to action on the Medicare lawsuits because she was concerned about rising healthcare costs. Also, she was concerned about being pigeonholed as an environmental activist.

"I am also a consumer activist," she said. "If I can help by using my name, maybe we can make things right."

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