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Pending bill would tighten scrutiny of outpatient surgery centers

Gov. Jerry Brown has until Oct. 9 to decide whether to sign the bill, which gives new authority to private accrediting agencies that monitor the centers, including those that perform Lap-Band surgery.

September 28, 2011|By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times
  • The 1-800-GET-THIN marketing firm promotes Lap-Band surgeries on Southern California billboards, as well as on TV, radio and the Internet. Above, a pair of billboards from 2010.
The 1-800-GET-THIN marketing firm promotes Lap-Band surgeries on Southern… (Glenn Koenig, Los Angeles…)

Outpatient surgery centers, including those that perform weight-loss procedures after which five Southern California patients have died, could face additional scrutiny under a bill pending before Gov. Jerry Brown.

Both houses of the state Legislature have approved a bill that would reshape laws governing clinics such as Valley Surgical Center, where Paula Rojeski underwent Lap-Band surgery before her Sept. 8 death.

Brown has until Oct. 9 to make a decision on the bill. A spokesman for the governor declined to comment.

The bill's author, state Sen. Curren Price Jr. (D-Inglewood), said the legislation is important because it gives new authority to private accrediting agencies that monitor the surgery centers. Price said he became interested in the issue after singer Kanye West's mother died in 2007 after liposuction and breast augmentation surgery at an outpatient clinic.

Under current law, clinics that lose private accreditation because of safety violations can apply to different accrediting firms for approval to operate. The proposed law would prohibit that, Price said.

The state medical board would also be required to document on its website whenever a surgery center has its accreditation revoked or suspended or the center is placed on probation.

"We think it's high time there's a lot more oversight and a better process of monitoring how these clinics operate," Price said. "And when there are problems there's transparency and public information."

Paramedics rushed Rojeski from Valley Surgical Center in West Hills to a nearby hospital, where she was pronounced dead. An autopsy was performed, but coroner's officials have not yet determined why the Orange County woman died.

Rojeski, 55, is the fifth person to die since 2009 after Lap-Band procedures in clinics that are affiliated with the 1-800-GET-THIN marketing firm. The company promotes Lap-Band surgeries on Southern California freeway billboards, television, radio and the Internet.

Rojeski was the second person to die after Lap-Band surgeries at the West Hills facility on Woodlake Avenue. Three others died after Lap-Band procedures at a surgery center in Beverly Hills.

The marketing company released a statement Monday that said it "has been informed by the surgery center that all surgical protocols were followed and that there were no deficiencies in the systems and processes of the surgery center."

The Valley Surgical Center is accredited by the Joint Commission, an independent, non-governmental agency that accredits medical facilities throughout the country. According to the firm's website, it last performed an "on-site survey" of the West Hills facility in November 2010.

Betty Brown, whose sister, Tamara Walter, died in December 2010 after Lap-Band surgery at a Beverly Hills clinic affiliated with 1-800-GET-THIN, testified to state lawmakers before they approved Price's bill.

The office at which Walter had her surgery was once called Almont Ambulatory Surgery Center, a Beverly Hills outpatient clinic specializing in weight-loss surgery.

For a few months in 2009, the center was accredited by the American Assn. for Accreditation of Ambulatory Surgery Facilities. The organization revoked Almont's accreditation in April that year after its inspectors followed up on a safety complaint.

A surgery center later reopened in the same office space, this time with a new name and the Joint Commission's accreditation. It was at that facility that Walter had her surgery.

Betty Brown said she believes Price's bill would have prevented her sister's death.

"With more regulation, there would be less a chance of something like this happening," Brown said. "This shouldn't continue to happen."

Walter's family members, including Brown, recently filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the 1-800-GET-THIN advertising company and two doctors involved in her care.

The lawsuit contends that the ad company falsely represented that the patient would receive "a higher level of care" by "top-rated surgical specialists." In fact, the lawsuit said, one of her doctors was on probation with the Medical Board of California at the time of the surgery and a second was under investigation by the agency.

Brown's attorney, Kathryn Trepinski, said she believes that the bill pending before the governor "is going to save lives."

"It is going to result in better oversight and enforcement. Dangerous or unsafe clinics may be forced to correct their deficiencies or be shut down," Trepinski said.

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