The University of California has agreed to pay $1.2 million to settle a federal whistle-blower lawsuit charging falsification of records and poor supervision of patients by UC Irvine anesthesiologists.
The suit said anesthesiologists at the university’s medical center filled out patient care reports before procedures started, “making it appear the anesthesiologist was present” when he or she wasn't.
The lawsuit was brought by Dr. Dennis O’Connor, a former professor of anesthesiology at UCI School of Medicine, who will receive $120,000 of the settlement. The remainder goes to the federal government.
O’Connor alleged in the 2008 suit that anesthesia was administered by nurse anesthetists or residents with no supervising anesthesiologist in the immediate area, as regulations require. He said in an interview that anesthesiologists were sometimes in a different building.
“Our view is UCI placed profits over patient safety,” said Louis Cohen, O’Connor’s attorney.
In a statement emailed Wednesday, the UC Regents denied the allegations.
UCI Medical Center had come under fire in the past for similar accusations. The medical center was placed under state supervision in 2008 because of the anesthesiology department’s “inability to provide quality healthcare in a safe environment,” according to a federal report.
Among the most serious failings federal inspectors cited was filling out reports in advance of care.
In 2008, the California Medical Board accused the former head of the anesthesiology department, Peter Breen, of gross negligence and incompetence. Two years later, the medical board gave him a public reprimand for writing that a patient was “stable” and “comfortable” during each phase of the procedure before anesthesia had been administered.
Breen was ordered to take ethics and medical record-keeping courses. He also was reprimanded by the Illinois Department of Professional Regulation.
Breen, who remains at UCI, did not return phone calls or an email Wednesday seeking comment.
The UCI statement said “new leadership took over and transformed” the anesthesiology department in 2008, putting in place new training and policies, including “an electronic record-keeping system that does not permit the practices alleged.”
O’Connor, who now works at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Long Beach, remains wary of UCI Medical Center. “I won’t go there, and I wouldn’t take my family there,” he said.
The medical center has suffered a number of scandals in the last 18 years. In 1995, fertility doctors were accused of stealing patients’ eggs and embryos and implanting them in other women without permission. In 2005, the hospital closed its liver transplant program after federal funding was withdrawn. The action came after The Times reported that 32 people died awaiting livers, even as doctors turned down organs that later were transplanted elsewhere.
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