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Univ. of Ill. Settles Transplant Claims

Nov 18, 2003 | AP

The University of Illinois at Chicago paid more than $2.3 million Monday to settle a whistleblower suit that alleged fraud in its liver-transplant program, officials said.

The federal and state governments collected twice the actual damages under the settlement, which also funneled the maximum allowable under the law to a surgeon who became a whistleblower.

"This settlement for twice the actual damages sends a clear message to health care providers that they will be held accountable for defrauding government payment programs," U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald said.

Dr. Raymond Pollak and the state and federal governments accused the university of improperly diagnosing and hospitalizing certain patients in the late 1990s to make them eligible for transplants before they otherwise would be.

The alleged fraud placed those who were improperly diagnosed ahead of others who were waiting to receive new livers, federal officials said.

Under terms of the settlement, the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center must cooperate with government audits and inspections and report any violations it finds.

As part of the settlement, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services office of the inspector general will not take any action to exclude UIC from Medicare, Medicaid or other federal health care programs, Fitzgerald's office announced.

The university issued a statement noting that it had admitted no liability as part of the settlement and that it "disputes all of the allegations and claims made in the government's complaint in the civil action."

"In order to avoid further delay, inconvenience and expense, we have reached a settlement agreement," the university said.

The school paid the government slightly more than $1 million on Monday under the agreement between federal officials and the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.

Pollak, a transplant surgeon who launched the whistleblower lawsuit in 1999, will receive about $250,000 of the amount that the university paid the federal government, officials said.

The university also paid about $751,000 to the State of Illinois and separately paid Pollak about $250,000 as part of the settlement.

The state and federal governments joined Pollak in his whistleblower suit. At the time it unveiled the suit in July, the federal government also announced it was settling similar claims against the University of Chicago for $115,000 and Northwestern Memorial for $23,587.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan issued a statement saying the medical center's actions were "legally and morally wrong."

"A hospital's desire to receive additional state and federal health care dollars should play no role in whether or not a patient is eligible for an organ transplant," she said.

Pollak was at one time head of the UIC Medical Center's transplant program. He was demoted and his pay was slashed after he complained about the way patients were being classified. He now teaches and is on staff at the university's Peoria medical center.

While the university settled the whistleblower claims the 52-year-old South Africa-born surgeon brought, there has been no settlement of legal claims that he was unfairly treated.

"We're pleased, but this is a partial settlement," Pollak attorney Robin Potter said Monday. "It covers only the fraud claims. None of the retaliation or the employment claims are resolved. We are urging the university and the taxpayers to right the whole wrong."

Federal officials have taken no position on the employment claims.

In the employment portion of the suit, which has been assigned to U.S. District Judge Harry D. Leinenweber, Pollak is seeking unspecified financial damages to compensate for lost salary. He also wants to be reinstated as head of the transplant unit at UIC Medical Center.

"The last part of this book still has to be written," Potter said. "Either we go before a jury or they do the right thing and they make Dr. Pollak whole."

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