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The Los Angeles Times recently ran a feature story about how the California Medical Board protects negligent doctors. The Times cited at least ten California physicians as examples.

One of the ten examples described in the article was Lokesh Tantuwaya, a San Diego spinal surgeon whose license has been revoked three times by the board, which placed him on probation each time. His license remains valid as he sits in jail awaiting trial on charges that he took more than $3 million in illegal kickbacks for surgeries in one of the biggest insurance scams in state history.

Tantuwaya, is a spinal surgeon who performed so many surgeries at a now-shuttered hospital in Long Beach that he was offered a private jet to commute to the facility, has become the subject of multiple malpractice lawsuits and a federal prosecution for his fraudulent healthcare schemes.

The kickback scheme came to light in 2018 and centered on Pacific Hospital of Long Beach which specialized in spinal and orthopedic procedures. The owner of Pacific Hospital, Michael D. Drobot, “conspired with doctors, chiropractors, and marketers to pay kickbacks in return for the referral of thousands of patients for spinal surgeries and other medical services paid for primarily through the California workers’ compensation system,” according to the Department of Justice. During the last five years of its operation, there were more than $500 million in fraudulent medical bills associated with the hospital, and Drobot eventually went to federal prison.

One of Tantuwaya’s patients sued him for malpractice after she went in for a routine back surgery and it went so badly her leg had to be amputated. He was also charged with accepting millions in bribes to perform these surgeries. Yet, despite all of this on his record, the doctor remains licensed.

Tantuwaya was charged with accepting $3.2 million in bribes and was ordered to hand over his passport, a million dollars and the jet. However, he has not yet gone to trial, and has pleaded not guilty. In June of this year, a judge finally ruled he was a flight risk and confined him to Santa Ana jail only after federal agents learned he’d purchased his own private plane and had discussed “fitting it with an extended fuel tank, just in case he needed to go far away,” according to a motion to revoke bond.

“If he were in any other profession, his license would be yanked,” said Marian Hollingsworth, co-founder of the Patient Safety League, “Any reasonable person would ask, ‘Why does he still have his license?’”

His organization claims that as the battle between would-be reformers and the physicians’ professional association rages regularly in Sacramento. It gained fresh momentum this week in the wake of the Times investigation. “As injured patients and consumer rights groups fight for tougher penalties on grossly negligent doctors, California’s powerful physicians lobby is working hard behind the scenes to water down any proposed reforms. So far, the lobbyists seem to be winning.”

For years, reformers have been demanding significant medical license fee increases to beef up enforcement and to alter the balance of the oversight board – from a physician majority to a public member majority – in the hope of getting more patient-friendly decisions in disciplinary cases.

Robert Fellmeth, executive director of the Center for Public Interest Law at the University of San Diego, called the California Medical Assn. a “pernicious cartel” that consistently fights to starve the state medical board of the funds needed to investigate doctors.

The political ties of the medical association have been well documented, particularly since Newsom’s well-publicized blunder sitting next to CMA’s chief executive and top lobbyist at an upscale Napa Valley restaurant last year, seeming to flout COVID-19 safety guidelines the governor had set.

State Senator Richard Roth (D-Riverside) said his bill, SB 806, has strong reforms, such as allowing the board to seek reimbursement from disciplined doctors for investigation and legal costs. The measure is crucial because, with no fee increases in 15 years, the board is “insolvent,” Roth noted.

But in a message to members last June, the doctors’ lobbyists – the California Medical Association – claimed they got the ear of the senator sponsoring those reforms.

Gavin Newsom, whose office is responsible for appointing most of the board members, refused to be interviewed about The Times’ findings or to offer comment.