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A federal qui tam whistle-blower lawsuit filed in 2008 by former University of California-Irvine (UCI) Professor and Anesthesiologist Dr. Dennis O’Connor triggered a multi-year investigation by the United States Department of Justice, resulting in an agreement by the California Board of Regents to pay the United States $1.2 Million.

The False Claims Act lawsuit alleged that anesthesia was routinely administered at UCI by Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs) or residents when there was no supervisory anesthesiologist present or immediately available, in violation of federal regulations. The complaint alleged that, in many instances, the supervisory anesthesiologist would be in a completely different building at the time, and that anesthesia records would be “pre-filled” to make it appear that the anesthesiologist was present. The complaint also alleged that required post-operative evaluations would routinely be performed by unsupervised and/or unlicensed residents, in violation of federal regulations, increasing the likelihood that post-operative complications would be missed.

In the Settlement Agreement with UCI, the United States contended that “it has certain civil claims against the Regents arising out of … the submission of claims by or on behalf of the Regents for payment by the Medicare program and the federal portion of the Medicaid program for anesthesia services performed at UCI in a manner inconsistent with federal healthcare program documentation requirements for those services, or inconsistent with federal healthcare program payment requirements for supervision of residents or CRNAs.” The Regents agreed to pay $1.2 Million to the United States to resolve such claims. UC Regents denied the allegations.

According to the story in the Los Angeles Times, the 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.

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 shut 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.