Kaiser Permanente has agreed to pay $1 million to settle claims on behalf of five patients alleging that the HMO mishandled its kidney transplant program, endangering lives and causing deaths.
The arbitration claims were filed shortly after a Times investigation in 2006 found that Kaiser's Northern California kidney transplant program jeopardized hundreds of patients by forcing them into a new program unprepared to handle an enormous caseload. Less than two weeks after the first article ran, Kaiser announced plans to shut down the San Francisco-based program.
"The failure of the program resulted in the deaths of some patients who did not timely receive kidney transplants. The health of others was severely jeopardized," said Lawrence Eisenberg, an attorney for two former patients and the families of three deceased patients. "As the largest HMO in the country, Kaiser's gross mismanagement of the kidney transplant program certainly did not allow their patients to thrive."
Kaiser released a brief statement confirming the settlements.
"As we said at the time, we deeply regret the problems, difficulties and concern that some of our members experienced with transfers involving the San Francisco kidney transplant program," said Kaiser spokesman Tony Rau.
Problems arose in the program soon after Kaiser began moving up to 1,500 kidney transplant patients from well-established centers at UC San Francisco and UC Davis to a new program introduced in the fall of 2004, the first transplant center that was opened by Kaiser.
Within months, Kaiser's waiting list was among the longest in the country, and its patients' odds of getting a kidney plummeted. In 2005, twice as many people died on the waiting list as received kidneys. The statewide pattern for transplant centers was the opposite: Twice as many patients received kidneys as died.
The settlements ranged from $100,000 to $300,000 for each client; most were limited by a state law passed in 1975 capping malpractice awards for "pain and suffering" to no more than $250,000. There is no limit on what patients can collect for loss of future wages.
The cases, as described by Eisenberg:
* A 59-year-old high school teacher who died in May 2007. Tests conducted in January 2006 showed that her brother's kidney could be used in the transplant, but administrative problems delayed the procedure for nearly a year. She was ultimately transferred to UC San Francisco but by then had become too ill to undergo the procedure.
* A 49-year-old woman who died in late 2006 after administrative errors kept her name off the regional waiting list. Her name was supposed to be added to the list in March 2003 but wasn't added until two years later.
* A man who was taken off the regional waiting list in January 2006 even though he had not received a kidney. The man was re-listed in July 2006 when he returned to UC San Francisco. But he never received a kidney, and died at age 60 in September 2006.
* A woman, now 54, who went without a kidney transplant for 1 1/2 years after Kaiser declined a kidney donated on her behalf in April 2005. Kaiser said she was "too ill or unsuitable for the transplant at that time, which was blatantly untrue," Eisenberg said. She was later transferred to UC Davis, and received a kidney in late 2006.
* A man who received inadequate follow-up care. He had received a kidney transplant from UC San Francisco in 1998 and was transferred to Kaiser's program for ongoing follow-up care in 2004. But Kaiser physicians allegedly did not adjust his medication even though lab tests showed that the kidney was beginning to fail. By February 2005, the organ failed and he had to resume dialysis, forcing him to stop working; he lost his home because he couldn't make mortgage payments. The man, now 40, had to wait until early 2009 to get a new kidney, and "appears to have a reasonably good result," Eisenberg said.
Eisenberg declined to identify his clients by name to protect their privacy.