Three Sue Calif. Hospital Over Transplants

The Associated Press
Monday, November 14, 2005; 11:05 PM

LOS ANGELES -- Three people sued a hospital on Monday, just days after the federal government found that more than 30 people died there over the past two years while waiting for liver transplants.

The lawsuit alleges that hospital officials didn't tell patients that the University of California, Irvine Medical Center hadn't had a resident liver transplant surgeon since June 2003.

The suit also alleges that UCI staff doctors conspired to perform surgeries that were more lucrative and cutting-edge while neglecting transplant patients, even when organs became available.

The other procedures attracted "more prestige, more patients, more profit and more research funding" than transplants, according to the lawsuit.

"They rejected and turned away hundreds of offers" of livers, said Lawrence Eisenberg, an attorney representing the three plaintiffs. "UCI actually rejected donated livers and the patients languished on their list and died."

Tom Vasich, UCI spokesman, said university officials hadn't seen the lawsuit and would not comment Monday night on it. UCI has suspended the liver transplant program.

In the report made public last week, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found that the hospital performed far fewer than the 12 transplants a year required for federal reimbursement, with as few as five transplants so far this year. The hospital's two surgeons were based in San Diego, some 90 miles away.

The report also said UCI's program had a one-year survival rate of 68 percent to 70 percent between July 2001 and June 2004 _ below the federal requirement of 77 percent.

The lawsuit filed Monday in Orange County Court alleges negligence, fraud and conspiracy. The plaintiffs are Andrea Razetto, her husband, Carlos, and Audrey Degenhardt.

Andrea Razetto waited six years on the waiting list at UCI before transferring to a Chicago hospital where she received a liver transplant in 2004, Eisenberg said.

Degenhardt's husband, Geoffrey, died April 3, 2004, at age 51 without receiving a liver.

"He was very optimistic, more so than myself. He always just thought he was going to get it," Audrey Degenhardt said Monday night. "Every time we went, I'd ask when he could get one. They always said livers were hard to come by, that there was a shortage of livers in Orange County."

UCI Medical Center has been rocked by two other major scandals in recent years.

In the mid-1990s, fertility doctors stole patients' eggs and implanted them in infertile women who in some instances gave birth. The university paid nearly $20 million to settle legal claims.

In 1999, the facility fired the director of its donated cadaver program amid suspicion that he had improperly sold spines to an Arizona research program.

© 2005 The Associated Press