Doctors’, technicians’ complaints about Dipak Desai were ignored

Many wondered why no whistle-blowers notified authorities about issues with Dr. Dipak Desai. The Las Vegas Review-Journal’s Paul Harasim answered that question Sunday in his in-depth report.

There were whistle-blowers.

At least two people, and possibly more, turned to the Nevada Board of Medical Examiners and complained about Desai. A medical technician reported her concerns about cleanliness. A competing gastroenterologist alleged Desai engaged in false advertising and overbilled patients.

Since Desai became the hub of the hepatitis outbreak in February, two other doctors, one a former member of the medical board, have alleged Desai exploited his position on the medical board to extort other doctors, promising protection in exchange for patient referrals. They said nothing to authorities at the time; so they don’t qualify as whistle-blowers, just complainers.

It’s possible more people tried to report unsafe and unsanitary practices before health authorities identified a cluster of hepatitis cases in February and linked them to Desai’s Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada. Amazingly, the medical board doesn’t keep a file of complaints that aren’t acted upon; they just toss them. Presumably there could be other complaints that were filed against Desai that no one knows about.

The first whistle-blower is Judy Witman, one of the medical technicians who worked for Desai in 1989. She said she quit after a few months and notified the board of medical examiners. Witman said Desai was so cheap, he rushed the technicians and didn’t give them enough time to completely clean the scopes used in colonoscopies. “There was always blood and stool on them,” she told Harasim.

Result of her complaint: Case dismissed.

In 1996, Dr. Charles Cohan, a competing gastroenterologist who had opened his practice in Las Vegas two years earlier, filed three complaints with the medical board. The first two alleged false advertising, the third alleged Desai overbilled two patients.

Surprise, surprise, Cohan’s first false advertising complaint went nowhere. Desai was on the board and chaired the committee that investigated complaints.

When the new phone book came out six months later and Desai was still falsely advertising all his doctors were board-certified, Cohan filed again, presenting all the documents proving Desai’s ads were false. This time, Desai was fined $2,500, and one of his doctors was fined $5,000.

Cohan’s third complaint involved billing. Cohan said he submitted bills from two patients who were charged by Desai for exams that should have taken an hour, and the patients said they saw Desai for five minutes. Case dismissed.

So he sent the information to the FBI. Nothing happened.

In 1998, Cohan sent 400 pages of information on false advertising and overbilling to the office of Attorney General Frankie Sue Del Papa. The AG couldn’t substantiate the allegations. Result: Unable to substantiate. Case dismissed.

In 1999, Cohan gave up, leaving town after an anonymous caller threatened his family.

Dr. Ivan Goldsmith, an internist, never filed a complaint but said around 1995 or 1996, when Desai was on the medical board, the gastroenterologist threatened disciplinary action if Goldsmith didn’t refer patients to him.

Goldsmith said he hired a physician’s assistant to work in his office who had passed the tests but wasn’t yet licensed. “He (Desai) told me he could go after my license if he wanted to. But he said if I started referring my patients to him … he’d forget about it. I had no choice but to start referring patients to him. I’d call that blackmail,” Goldsmith told Harasim.

Another board member at the time said other doctors said Desai contacted them and said they wouldn’t be disciplined by the board if they referred patients to him. The board member said the doctors didn’t file complaints because they had no proof, so there was nothing he could do.

Of course, they were supposedly being protected from discipline. Or maybe they thought it was pointless to speak out. For whatever reason, those doctors, including the board member, apparently did nothing to stop Desai’s alleged extortion when he was on the medical board between 1993 until 2001.

Wonder how those doctors feel about keeping quiet about Desai, now that 50,000 patients are being tested for hepatitis and AIDS. Any pangs about joining the conspiracy of silence?

Jane Ann Morrison’s column appears Monday, Thursday and Saturday. E-mail her at Jane@reviewjournal.com or call (702) 383-0275.

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