The University of California agreed to pay $1.2 million to the federal government on March 27 to settle a federal whistle-blower lawsuit charging falsification of records and inadequate patient supervision by UC Irvine anesthesiologists.
Filed in 2008 by former UC Irvine School of Medicine professor and anesthesiologist Dennis O’Connor, the False Claims Act lawsuit alleged that anesthesia was administered by nurses at UC Irvine when there were no supervisory anesthesiologists present, in violation of regulations, according to a recent press release.
In the lawsuit, O’Connor alleged that anesthesia records would be “pre-filled” to make it appear that a supervisory anesthesiologist was present and that post-operative evalutions would be given by unsupervised or even unlicensed residents, leading to an increased likelihood that post-operative complications would be missed.
A statement from UC Irvine said that “new leadership took over and transformed” the anesthesiology department in 2008 by instating new training and policies, including “an electronic record-keeping system that does not permit the practices alleged.”
According to a 2008 federal report, the medical center was placed under state supervision due to the anesthesiology department’s “inability to provide quality healthcare in a safe environment.” Also in 2008 the former head of the department, Peter Breen, was accused by the California Medical Board of gross negligence and incompetence.
“When patients were most vulnerable, UCI placed profits over patient safety,” said Louis J. Cohen, an attorney for O’Connor, in a statement. “It is inspiring to see a distinguished physician stand up for honesty and patient safety, especially when others simply go along with improper and unsafe practices.”
In recognition of O’Connor’s substantial contributions in bringing UC Irvine’s violations to light, the Department of Justice agreed to pay him a relator’s share of $120,000.
UC Irvine Medical Center is not unfamiliar to accusations of improper patient care, as it has endured several scandals over the past two decades. In 1995, fertility doctors were accused of stealing patients’ eggs and embryos and implanting them in other women. In 2006, federal funding was withdrawn from UC Irvine’s liver transplant program when 32 people died after doctors turned down viable organs.