Doctors without Ethical Borders: 5 Top Medical Scandals of 2018-2019

Trust in doctors and the public health establishment is at an all-time low.  When Americans aren’t resisting vaccinations campaigns they’re ignoring sound medical advice.  There’s a perception that medical care providers and big pharmaceutical companies and hospitals are more interested in earning profits than in serving consumers and curing diseases.

Here are 5 more reasons this perception is not likely to go away any time soon. 

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Financial Shenanigans

It comes as no surprise that Big Pharma has cozy relations with the management of prestigious hospitals, but New York’s Sloan-Kettering Center may have set a new low.

Hospital CEO Dr. Craig B. Thompson has resigned from the boards of Merck and Charles River Laboratories after investigations found “insider deals among hospital officials and undisclosed industry relationships” with drug companies, according to an October 2018 report in the New York Times.

One of the worst cases involves Sloan-Kettering’s chief medical officer, Dr. Jose Baselga, who was discovered to have received direct payments of $3 million from the drug giant Roche since 2014.  Baselga, considered one of the top cancer doctors in the country, had given Roche favorable reviews in cancer research journals where he served as editor in exchange for those payments.

Baselga told investigators that his lack of transparency was “unintentional,” which strains credulity.  Under pressure, he agreed to resign from the Roche board and his positions with the journals.

The news magazine Pro-Publica noted:  “Baselga’s extensive corporate relationships — and his frequent failure to disclose them — illustrate how permeable the boundaries remain between academic research and industry, and how weakly reporting requirements are enforced by the medical journals and professional societies charged with policing them.”

Research Fraud

Perhaps even worse than the Baselga scandal were the outright research fabrications committed by Piero Anversa, a high-profile physician and cardiac stem-cell researcher at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, MA.

For over a decade Anversa enjoyed an impeccable reputation as a pioneer in stem cell research but much of his work – a total of 31 published papers — is now being questioned.

Last year, the Brigham and Women’s Hospital agreed to a $10 million settlement with the U.S. government over allegations that Anversa and two colleagues’ work had been used to fraudulently obtain federal funding.

In 2014, Anversa had sued Harvard and the Brigham for alerting medical journals to problems in their work – but their suits were unsuccessful.  A year later Anversa’s lab closed and the hospital served all ties with the doctor.

Anversa built his reputation by claiming that the heart contains stem cells that could regenerate cardiac muscle. He and his colleagues claimed that they had identified such cells, known as c-kit cells. Trouble began when researchers tried to replicate Anversa’s findings and repeatedly failed.

Jeffery Molkentin, a researcher at Cincinnati Children’s was among the first to suggest that Anversa had fabricated his findings back in 2014 but it’s taken years for the field to come around to his view.

“It really is a relief that this has been corrected. I think this is good for everybody,” he told Stat News.  “There are no stem cells in the heart. Quit trying to publish those results.”

Insurance Failure

It doesn’t sound like much but it’s turning into a big deal.  It may even reshape the way the country regulates insurance.

A former medical director at AETNA, the third-largest medical insurer in the country has admitted under oath that he often never bothered to review the patient claims made to the insurer before deciding whether to approve or deny care.

The issue came up during testimony in a case concerning a patient with a rare disease that was denied coverage.

Dr. Jay Lumina, the AETNA medical admitted that he never saw the claim and rarely did because lower-level employees made the determinations for him – and he simply signed off on them.

California insurance commissioner Dave Jones expressed outrage when he learned of the revelation.  “[My expectation would be] “that physicians would be reviewing treatment authorization requests,” Jones told CNN.   “It’s troubling that “during the entire course of time he was employed at Aetna, he never once looked at patients’ medical records himself.”

“It’s hard to imagine that in that entire course in time, there weren’t any cases in which a decision about the denial of coverage ought to have been made by someone trained as a physician, as opposed to some other licensed professional,” Jones added.

Other members of the medical community were also left shaking their heads.

“Oh, my God. Are you serious? That is incredible,” said Dr. Anne-Marie Irani, a professor of pediatrics and internal medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Richmond at Virginia Commonwealth University and a former member of the American Board of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

“This is potentially a huge, huge story and quite frankly may reshape how insurance functions,” added her colleague and current board member Dr. Andrew Murphy.

Despite the deepening controversy, AETNA still feels it did nothing wrong.  The head of the company has invited Jones and others to meet with him “to review the way the company processes claims.”

That should be a hoot. 

Medical Cover-Up

The opioid epidemic continues to devastate local communities.  Who’s implicated?  Just about everybody, it seems.  Our culture is so addictive and there’s too much money to be made from prescribing pain killers for every passing source of discomfort, real and imagined.

But a lot of the blame goes to Big Pharma.  A report released in recent months found that Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin, knew for years that consumers were crushing and shorting the pills and becoming addicted to them.

And with big profits rolling in, Purdue did nothing to alert regulators, let alone warn consumers of the dangers.

Purdue was already facing thousands of lawsuits for simply manufacturing the drug and allowing it to be prescribed so readily.  The plaintiffs include 24 states and millions of consumers whose lives were cut short by their opioid addiction.

The latest report only makes it more likely that the company will be found liable for damages.

But the plaintiff better hurry.  In September 2019, Purdue Pharma filed for bankruptcy.

Purdue says proceeds from the bankruptcy settlement be used to settle the pending suits, avoiding protracted litigation.

“This unique framework for a comprehensive resolution will dedicate all of the assets and resources of Purdue for the benefit of the American public,” says Steve Miller, chairman of the company’s board of directors.

“This settlement framework avoids wasting hundreds of millions of dollars and years on protracted litigation, and instead will provide billions of dollars and critical resources to communities across the country trying to cope with the opioid crisis.”

So far most of the plaintiffs aren’t biting.  After so much willful deception, can you blame them? 

Sexual Abuse

Apparently learning nothing from the horrific Michigan State University scandal in which the school’s gymnastics program doctor molested thousands of young athletes, USC has tried to sweep its own sexual abuse scandal under the rug by letting George Tyndall, a school doctor accused of similar crimes, resign and receive a generous pay-out.

But it hasn’t washed.  Now, faced with lawsuits from thousands of outraged victims and their lawyers, USC is offering them a $215 million settlement, a pittance given the number of plaintiffs and the types of abuse claims involved.

According to one report:  “The university has acknowledged that it received complaints about the doctor for years, though officials failed to act on them, allowing him to treat 14,000 to 17,000 young women, many of them in recent times international students, especially from China. They may have been even more unfamiliar with Western medicine, the English language, and, thus, greatly vulnerable to exploitation.”

It is unclear if the proposed settlement, which covers only federal claims, will ameliorate the rage felt by the plaintiffs and their lawyers at a prestigious university that chose to look the other way to preserve its reputation rather than come to the aid of its students.

The university appears to be banking on the fact that there is little forensic evidence to support charges of abuse.  However, legal experts say it is likely that the courts will allow a class-action lawsuit to proceed, which means a much larger judgment.

Time to dig deep, USC.

 

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