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1-800-GET-THIN clinics put patients at risk, lawsuit alleges

Surgery centers affiliated with the 1-800-GET-THIN ad campaign used improperly sterilized equipment during Lap-Band weight-loss surgeries, two ex-workers say in the lawsuit.

June 13, 2012|By Stuart Pfeifer, Los Angeles Times
  • At least five patients have died following Lap-Band weight-loss surgeries at clinics affiliated with the 1-800-GET-THIN ad campaign. Above, a billboard for the campaign seen in February along the 10 Freeway in East Los Angeles.
At least five patients have died following Lap-Band weight-loss surgeries… (Anne Cusack, Los Angeles…)

Surgery centers affiliated with the 1-800-GET-THIN ad campaign used improperly sterilized surgical equipment during Lap-Band weight-loss surgeries and failed to notify several patients that they might have been exposed to the hepatitis C virus, two former workers alleged in a new lawsuit.

Jessica Meyle, a dietitian, and Amy Demonbreun, a surgical assistant, made the allegations in a lawsuit filed late Thursday in Los Angeles County Superior Court. They said they quit their jobs this year rather than continue "to engage in unsafe patient care and the defendants' pattern and practice of violating the law."

The lawsuit seeks monetary damages from 1-800-GET-THIN, an affiliated surgery center in San Diego, and Michael and Julian Omidi, the brothers who the lawsuit says own and operate the weight-loss business. Several other companies reportedly owned by the Omidis were also named as defendants.

The workers said in the lawsuit that they were employed at the Omidis' San Diego clinic, the San Diego Ambulatory Surgery Center. A machine that was supposed to sterilize surgical equipment at the clinic frequently malfunctioned, putting patients at risk, the lawsuit said.

In addition, the workers said, surgical equipment used on a patient who had the hepatitis C virus Dec. 30 was later used on patients in San Diego and an affiliated clinic in Beverly Hills. Managers of the weight-loss business failed to inform public health authorities in San Diego and Los Angeles counties that patients might have been exposed to hepatitis C and should be tested, the workers said.

Michael and Julian Omidi did not respond to a request for comment.

Konrad Trope, an attorney who said he represents the San Diego surgery center, said the lawsuit was without merit and his clients expect it to be dismissed. He said internal emails prove that one of the workers knew the instruments were properly sterilized.

"As to the material allegations of any wrongdoing on behalf of my clients, we deny them," Trope said. He added: "We're going to vigorously defend ourselves and we're going to show the two plaintiffs are nothing more than disgruntled former employees who are trying to exploit the situation for financial purposes."

Hepatitis C is a virus that can cause significant liver damage and death. The lawsuit said the Beverly Hills and San Diego surgery centers should have notified patients so that they could be tested for the virus.

The lawsuit is one of several filed by former employees and patients against 1-800-GET-THIN, the Omidis and affiliated surgery centers, alleging improper billing and poor medical treatment. At least five patients have died following surgeries at clinics affiliated with the ad campaign on Southern California freeway billboards, television, radio and the Internet.

In December, the Food and Drug Administration accused 1-800-GET-THIN and the clinics of misleading advertising for failing to adequately warn patients about the potential risks of the surgery. Allergan Inc., the Irvine manufacturer of the Lap-Band, said in February that it would no longer sell the device to any businesses affiliated with 1-800-GET-THIN. Much of the advertising has since been removed, officials with several billboard companies said.

stuart.pfeifer@latimes.com

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