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Lap-band patients operate in the dark

Information about facilities' disciplinary histories is public, but few consumers know how to find it.

April 18, 2010|Michael Hiltzik

Willie Brooks Jr. was a 35-year-old substitute custodial worker for the Pomona school district when he decided to do something about his weight last year.

The 6-foot-6 Brooks tipped the scale at nearly 300 pounds. He thought he would be in line for a permanent position if he lost a few pounds. So when he noticed the advertising campaign suggesting he find out about weight loss surgery by calling 1-800-GET-SLIM, he followed up.

Lap-Band doctor: A column by Michael Hiltzik in the April 18 Business section incorrectly stated that Dr. Michael Omidi, who has been associated with Top Surgeons, the promoter of Lap-Band weight-loss surgery, was placed on probation by the California Medical Board for such acts of "gross negligence" as allowing medical assistants to operate on patients. Although the board did make such accusations, Omidi settled the case by stipulating to having violated state law by performing surgeries on three patients at an unaccredited surgical facility. The board revoked his license but stayed that action for a three-year probationary period. —

Brooks had surgery to implant a lap-band -- a silicone ring fitted around the upper stomach to suppress appetite -- last June 5 at a surgical facility in Beverly Hills operated by Top Surgeons, the sponsor of those 1-800-GET-THIN and 1-800-GET-SLIM billboards that have become as inescapable on Southern California freeways as smog in summer. He was sent home to Perris with a prescription for oxycodone painkiller and instructions to return in a week.

Three days later, Brooks was dead. At the autopsy, a Riverside County coroner found stomach contents leaking around the edges of the lap-band and more than a liter of pus in his abdomen. On her report she listed the cause of death as "peritonitis due to lap-band procedure due to obesity."

Lap-Band surgery: Michael Hiltzik's column in Sunday's Business section said that Willie Brooks, who died after weight-loss surgery at a clinic in Beverly Hills, was 6 feet 6 and nearly 300 pounds when he died. He was 5 feet 6. —

I was thinking about the Brooks family the other day while driving past one of the new billboards Top Surgeons has been rolling out in the Southland.

The new billboards state, "We only work with pre-screened, fully-inspected and accredited facilities." They display a huge gold seal reading: "We are committed to PATIENT SAFETY at the highest level!"

These billboards seem to be a response to my previous columns about this hard-sell, high-volume medical enterprise and the people behind it, the brothers Julian and Michael Omidi.

As I've reported, the California Medical Board revoked Julian Omidi's medical license last year after finding that he had been intentionally deceitful about his past on his license application. The board also has placed Michael Omidi on probation for such acts of "gross negligence" as allowing unlicensed medical assistants to operate on patients.

As for "fully-inspected and accredited facilities," the accreditation of the clinic at 9001 Wilshire Blvd. in Beverly Hills where Brooks had his surgery was revoked in April 2009 by the American Assn. for the Accreditation of Ambulatory Surgery Facilities (AAAASF), one of the four accreditation agencies recognized by the state of California. The federal government terminated the clinic from Medicare and Medicaid after inspectors produced 22 pages of health violations.

In a lawsuit filed last month in Los Angeles County Superior Court, Willie Brooks' family says he would never have consented to have surgery at the facility or with Top Surgeons personnel had he known about some of these issues.

It's plain that Brooks' passing has left a vacuum in the lives of his widow, Okema, and their six children, ages 14 to 20.

"He was the glue that held the family together," she told me. "Camping, family vacations, sports." The last family fishing trip was the day before his surgery.

What the family's lawsuit underscores is that the state needs to get information about physicians' and facilities' disciplinary histories to their patients a lot faster. Much of that information is public, but it hides in plain sight because few patients know how to find it.

The medical board is taking a step in that direction by requiring doctors' offices to post a large sign directing patients to its website,, where they can find disciplinary records on every doctor in the state. The regulation will go into effect at the end of June, says the board's interim executive director, Linda Whitney.

The Legislature is also moving, if slowly, to close the holes in state regulation of independent surgical clinics. The regulatory fabric was ripped apart by a 2007 state court ruling that voided the Department of Public Health's oversight of clinics owned by a doctor.

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