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DOJ Amends False Claims Suit Against Georgia Surgeon, Hospital

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media, July 30, 2010

The Department of Justice has filed an amended false claims suit against Satilla Regional Medical Center in Waycross, GA, and a staff surgeon, alleging that the doctor botched endovascular procedures that resulted in the death of one patient, and that the hospital ignored complaints from nurses about the surgeon's competence.

The complaint—first filed in April, and based on a whistleblower suit—alleges that the 231-bed hospital and a staff physician, Najam Azmat, MD, submitted false claims for surgeries and other hospital services that were unnecessary, and of no medical value. Prosecutors also claim the defendants' alleged misconduct endangered the lives of Medicare beneficiaries.

The government further alleges that Satilla recruited Azmat, a general surgeon, to join the hospital's medical staff in 2005. Shortly after Azmat came aboard, Satilla allowed him to perform endovascular procedures in Satilla's Heart Center cath lab, despite Azmat?s lack of training for the specialty procedure.

According to the complaint, Azmat's alleged incompetence in endovascular procedures was "obvious to the cath lab nursing staff," who repeatedly voiced concerns to Satilla's management. The hospital allegedly took no action for at least five months, during which time one patient died from hemorrhagic shock following an endovascular procedure where Azmat allegedly perforated her renal artery. The complaint states that Satilla's management performed no formal oversight of Azmat, excluding his endovascular procedures from Satilla's peer review process.

"When healthcare providers cut corners by allowing unqualified doctors to perform complicated medical procedures, patients suffer," said Tony West, assistant attorney general for the Civil Division of the Department of Justice. "Here, we allege individuals were endangered because of these defendants. The seriousness of this case illustrates why we remain committed to protecting patient safety and the integrity of our federal healthcare programs by aggressively enforcing our health care fraud laws."

This lawsuit was originally filed by whistleblower Lana Rogers, a former nurse in Satilla's Heart Center.

Satilla officials said they were still reading the amended complaint, but noted that the new suit has left out allegations that the government made in April, and that the amended complaint also drops claims against Satilla's employees.

"This means the government has effectively thrown out a significant portion of the so-called whistleblower's lawsuit on its own. The amended complaint is hardly news—it is essentially a narrower version of a four-year-old medical malpractice claim that has yet to prove a single fact. Satilla will continue to defend itself vigorously against these meritless allegations," the hospital said in a written statement.

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