Doctors' bad behavior in 2017 included fraud, patient abuse and pill mill operations

Male doctor in white lab coat
Doctors landed in trouble in 2017 for acts that ranged from sexual assault on patients to defrauding Medicare of millions of dollars. (Getty/Saklakova)

A recent poll found most physicians said that patients have less trust in their doctors than they did 10 years ago.

Some of what lies behind that eroding trust are the doctors who generate negative headlines with their misconduct. Instead of casting doctors in a positive light, their stories lead patients to see doctors as greedy and dishonest. Those doctors put their own interests ahead of their patients’ needs.

Doctors who generate bad publicity, tarnish their reputations and often end up guilty of criminal charges undermine trust in both healthcare professionals and confidence in the system.

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Doctors and practices made this year’s list for a variety of reasons: the deaths of patients from opioid overdoses, sexual assaults against patients, defrauding government and private insurers and more.

RELATED: 2017's notorious healthcare CEOs include VA head who was fired twice

In this report, you’ll read about the actions of doctors who made headlines in 2017 for all the wrong reasons.

Ricardo Cruciani, Philadelphia

Cruciani, who specialized in rare, complicated syndromes, pleaded guilty last month to assaulting seven patients at a Philadelphia clinic. The 63-year-old doctor admitted he assaulted seven women while he was chairman of Drexel University’s neurology department and pleaded guilty to charges of indecent assault and harassment by unwanted physical contact. Under a plea agreement he won't face prison time, but will serve seven years' probation, register as a sex offender and forfeit his medical license. 

Legal and regulatory issues
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Three former patients gave statements during Cruciani’s hearing, including one who described the doctor hugging and kissing her during a visit to relieve her pain from spinal stenosis and related ailments. “He’s a monster,” she told the court.

Robert Gene Rand, Reno, Nevada

Rand, 54, a physician who operated Rand Family Care, was sentenced last month to 10 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter of a patient and unlawful distribution of oxycodone. In addition to the prison term, he was ordered to pay a $25,000 fine and almost $12,000 in restitution to the family of his 33-year-old patient Michael Yenick, who died of an overdose in October 2015.

Family members of patients who died under Rand’s care provided heart-rending testimony during the sentencing hearing, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal. A relative of Yenick described Rand as “a monster with a stethoscope.”

David Ming Pon, Leesburg, Florida 

Pon was sentenced to 10 years in prison in March for cheating Medicare out of nearly $10 million by intentionally misdiagnosing patients and then giving them phony laser treatments.

Federal prosecutors had sought at least 40 years in prison for Pon, 59, and described his behavior as “evil.” Federal prosecutors and other doctors had recommended greater prison time for Pon because of his treatment of more than 500 elderly patients. Pon falsely told the patients they had wet age-related macular degeneration and that they would go blind without laser treatment. He then faked the treatments and billed Medicare.

Aria O. Sabit, Detroit

Sabit was sentenced in January to nearly 20 years in prison for his role in a $2.8 million healthcare fraud scheme in which he caused serious bodily harm to patients by performing unnecessary invasive spinal surgeries. 

Sabit owned and operated the Michigan Brain and Spine Physicians Group, and admitted he derived significant profits by convincing patients to undergo spinal fusion surgeries using medical devices to stabilize and strengthen the spine.

He billed insurers, but never installed the devices during surgery. Some patients still in pain after the surgery found out about Sabit’s deceit when they sought care from other doctors.

Henry Wetselaar, Las Vegas

Wetselaar, a 93-year-old doctor who practiced as a specialist in pain management, was sentenced in August to 10 years in prison for his role in a pill mill conspiracy. He was sentenced for distributing large quantities of prescription opioids, including oxycodone and other controlled substances, without a medical purpose and was ordered to pay a $2.5 million fine.

Gavel and flag in courtroom
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Following a 10-week trial, a jury in March found Wetselaar guilty on a number of drug and money laundering charges. According to the indictment against him, the doctor performed house calls and maintained a medical practice, conspiring with his medical assistant and local drug dealers to distribute the drugs he prescribed in and around Las Vegas.

Chris Christensen, Florence, Montana

Christensen was found guilty last month on charges that included two counts of negligent homicide related to the overdose deaths of two of his patients.

A jury found the 69-year-old doctor guilty on 22 charges that also included 11 counts of criminal distribution of dangerous drugs and nine counts of criminal endangerment. Christensen’s lawyer said the doctor plans to appeal those convictions after he is sentenced later this month. The maximum sentence is more than 400 years in prison, according to the county attorney who prosecuted the case.

Leonard Van Gelder, Detroit

Van Gelder pleaded guilty in March for his role in a $17.1 million Medicare fraud scheme in which he made medically unnecessary physician visits and wrote prescriptions for unnecessary narcotics, such as Vicodin. He was one of three doctors charged in the scheme.

Gelder was a physician for Lake Michigan Mobile Doctors. He admitted he saw patients who did not qualify for his services and billed Medicare at the highest billing codes, according to the Justice Department.

Asim Hameedi and Emad Soliman, Bayside, New York

Hameedi, who runs City Medical Associates in Bayside, New York, was arrested in March and charged in a $50 million fraud scheme. Law enforcement also charged Emad Soliman, M.D., a neurologist who once worked at Hameedi’s clinic, along with four other employees or associates.

All are facing criminal charges for their roles in submitting false insurance claims between 2003 and 2015 to defraud Medicaid, Medicare and other private health insurance companies. Prosecutors said the defendants provided false medical information and used the identities of doctors who did not work at the clinic to submit fraudulent claims. The defendants are charged with healthcare fraud, identity theft and making false statements.

Abdul Haq, Ypsilanti, Michigan 

Haq, 72, pleaded guilty in October to one count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud for his role in a $19 million scheme involving three providers. His sentencing is scheduled for next May.

As part of his guilty plea, Haq admitted that he conspired with the owner of the Tri-County Network, Mashiyat Rashid and his co-defendants to prescribe medically unnecessary controlled substances to Medicare patients, many of whom were addicted to narcotics, prosecutors said.

As part of the conspiracy, Haq admitted Rashid also directed him and other physicians to require that patients undergo medically unnecessary facet joint injections to obtain the prescriptions for controlled substances.

Valentina Kovalienko, Brooklyn, New York

Kovalienko, who owned the Prime Care on the Bay and Bensonhurst Mega Medical Care clinics in Brooklyn, New York, was sentenced to seven years in prison in September for her role in a $55 million health fraud scheme.

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The 47-year-old from Brooklyn was also ordered by a U.S. District Court judge to forfeit more than $29 million. Kovalienko pleaded guilty in October 2015 to one count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

As part of her guilty plea, she admitted that her co-conspirators paid cash kickbacks to patients to induce them to attend her two medical clinics to undergo physical and occupational therapy or diagnostic tests and for office visits.

Johnny Trotter, Bloomfield Hills, Michigan 

Trotter, 42, was sentenced in November to 15 years in prison for his part in a $26 million healthcare fraud scheme that involved billing Medicare for nerve block injections that he never provided. A Detroit area doctor, he also made efforts to circumvent Medicare’s investigation of the fraudulent scheme by creating sham medical practices and recruiting family members and employees to serve as straw owners of the companies, prosecutors said.

He and a co-conspirator, who owned a Michigan billing company, were each ordered to pay over $9 million in restitution.

James Tiffany, Minneapolis

A Minneapolis eye surgery company, Sightpath Medical and TLC Vision Corporation, and its former CEO, James Tiffany, agreed in August to pay more than $12 million to resolve allegations of kickbacks to doctors in exchange for their business.

The settlement was reached to resolve kickback allegations under the False Claims Act.

According to a complaint brought by a whistleblower, Sightpath and Precision Lens paid kickbacks to physicians in various forms, including travel, entertainment and improper consulting agreements. The trips included luxury ski vacations and high-end fishing, golfing and hunting trips.

The complaint alleged the items were provided in order to get physicians to use Sightpath Entities’ and a company called Precision Lens’ products and services.

Stephen F. Serbin and Victoria Serbin, Columbia, South Carolina 

The Serbins, who owned Family Medicine Centers of South Carolina, a chain of family practice centers, agreed in September to pay the government $2 million to settle alleged False Claims Act violations.

Doctor putting money in pocket
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Family Medicine Centers agreed to pay $1.56 million to resolve a lawsuit, alleging it submitted false claims to Medicare and TRICARE. Stephen Serbin, a doctor, principal owner and former CEO if the firm, and Victoria Serbin, its former laboratory director, agreed to pay $443,000 to resolve the lawsuit.

The settlements resolve allegations that Family Medicine Centers submitted claims to Medicare that violated the Stark Law, which prohibits a clinic from billing Medicare for certain services ordered by physicians who have a financial relationship with the entity. In this case, the government alleged the chain violated the law by its incentive compensation plan that paid doctors a percentage of the value of laboratory and other diagnostic tests they ordered through FMC.

Eugene Gosy, Clarence, New York

Gosy was indicted last month and charged in the deaths of six patients who overdosed on opioids. A DEA agent said the agency was sending a "message" to "rogue doctors."
 
A federal grand jury returned a 166-count superseding indictment charging Gosy, 56, of Clarence, New York, with a long list of crimes, including one count of conspiring to distribute and dispense narcotics resulting in the death of six of his patients.
 
If convicted, the doctor, whose pain clinic at one time prescribed more prescriptions for controlled substances than any hospital in the state, according to prosecutors, could face life in prison.