Lawmakers got an earful Monday night. They heard public outrage, frustrated patients of Dr. Dipak Desai and calls for a complete overhaul of the Nevada State Board of Medical Examiners.
Some of the 60 or so who testified before the Legislative Committee on Health Care at the Sawyer Building even suggested giving Gov. Jim Gibbons the boot.
But for the most part, those directly affected by shoddy practices at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, the focus of a massive public health notification, simply wanted answers.
They wanted assurance from lawmakers that this "never event" wouldn’t occur again. They compared Nevada’s health care system to that of a Third World country.
And, they wanted to know what help is available.
"My wife and I both got tested,” one man testified. "One of us is positive. … What do we do next?”
After his testimony, which lasted about 30 seconds, the man and his wife were escorted into a separate room by Southern Nevada Health District staff who would try and help them answer that question.
"Amid all the anger and frustration, we did get some good input,” Assemblywoman Sheila Leslie, D-Reno, said after the hearing. "I think we needed to do this, even though it was exhausting.”
That input included calls to create 24-hour testing for hepatitis and HIV, a health care disaster plan, and a public advocate position to help people file complaints against physicians with the state’s medical board.
Sylvia Barcus, a member of Citizens for Patient Dignity, told lawmakers that they also need to look at the care being provided at the nursing home facilities throughout the state.
"There’s horrible care being provided at these facilities as well,” Barcus, 67, said in a hallway after her testimony.
Reuel Williams, 74, who also spoke before the committee, said lawmakers needed to look at the state’s entire health care system, starting with the physicians and its medical board.
He said Nevada ranks near the bottom in physician discipline, "therefore the worst doctors come here.”
"All personnel, doctors, anesthesiologists and nurses who participated in these life-threatening procedures should be criminally prosecuted, incarcerated and all of their assets seized and distributed to their victims as partial compensations,” Williams said.
His comments were met with applause from the roughly 100 people in the room. An overflow room held an additional 50 people.
Williams said he was misdiagnosed as a result of a colonoscopy at the Endocopy Center’s Shadow Lane facility in May.
"Now that doubtful procedure is over, do I have AIDS? Do I have hepatitis C?”
Seventy-eight-year-old Evelyn Cannestra was disgusted Monday as she stood outside the Sawyer Building.
"I survived four years in Vietnam with the State Department, and now I have to worry about whether I’m going to die from some disease I caught having a colonoscopy," she said. "I have to learn as much as I can about this. I’m just not used to dealing with people in medicine who have no moral values at all."
Monday’s meeting was called by Leslie to discuss the ongoing massive health alert, announced first on Feb. 27 after six cases of hepatitis C were linked to the Shadow Lane facility. Last week, health district officials announced a seventh case of hepatitis C, this one involving a 2006 patient at the Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center, an affiliated Las Vegas clinic.
Health officials believe transmission occurred when nurse anesthetists reused syringes on infected patients, contaminating vials of medication that were shared by multiple patients.
The Southern Nevada Health District has mailed more than 40,000 letters to patients of the Endoscopy Center, urging them to be tested for hepatitis and HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Federal and state law enforcement officials have opened a criminal investigation.
At least a dozen attorneys attended Monday’s hearing, including Robert Eglet, who represents nearly 90 clinic patients who have tested positive for hepatitis or HIV.
As of Monday, Eglet said, his office represents 3,250 clients who have had procedures done at the Endoscopy Center and affiliated clinics.
"These are not junkies,” Eglet said of clients who have tested positive. "These are grandmothers, mothers and fathers. They do not have tattoos and they were not at high risk. A great majority of them had blood tests before going to the center.”
Eglet said his office is currently working with other attorneys in Las Vegas to put together a matrix to identify any potential clusters.
Gibbons spoke during the hearing from Carson City, saying the crisis "has challenged the faith" of Nevadans in city, county and state governments, as well as the state’s health care system. One of his goals, he said, is to restore trust.
He said the state Department of Health and Human Services has reimbursed the Southern Nevada Health District about $190,000 to cover costs of mailing the 40,000 notifications and for setting up a hot-line for patients to call for information.
Gibbons’ comments were followed by those of Eveyln McKnight, who was one of 99 people to contract the blood-borne disease after undergoing chemotherapy treatment at a Nebraska cancer center.
McKnight was asked by lawmakers to come to Nevada to share her experiences.
"No American should receive a letter like this,” said McKnight, who has started the advocacy organization Hepatitis Outbreaks National Organization for Reform.
The organization and others are calling for a congressional hearing on the issue.
"One needle. One syringe. One vial. Only once and only for me. … It’s that simple,” McKnight said about how to prevent such a situation from occurring again.
Lawmakers on the committee will meet again April 21, where they will discuss legislation that could affect how members of regulatory boards are chosen, how ambulatory surgery centers are accredited and how procedures that physicians perform in their offices can be regulated.
Review-Journal writer Paul Harasim contributed to this report. Contact reporter Annette Wells at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (702) 383-0283.