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Christopher Duntsch

More on the Abbott-Duntsch connection

The Observer advances the ball.

Dr. Christopher Duntsch

How immune are hospitals? Under the current law, for Baylor to be liable for Duntsch’s mistakes, the plaintiffs have to prove that hospital administrators let him operate because they specifically intended to harm patients.

Soon after the three plaintiffs sued, Abbott’s office announced that it would be jumping in to defend the statute that shielded Baylor. In statements at the time, the attorney general’s office was clear: Abbott wasn’t defending Baylor or Duntsch. He was simply defending state law.

Earlier this week, Wayne Slater at the Dallas Morning News suggested that Abbott may have had other incentives to intervene. In June 2013 and January 2014 Abbott received two large donations to his gubernatorial campaign—$100,000 and $250,000 respectively—from one Drayton McLane, a Temple transportation exec and Republican who is also the chairman of the the board of trustees for Baylor Scott & White, the company that owns the Baylor hospital system.

The timing is a little suspicious. The $100,000 donation came the day after the Texas Medical Board suspended Duntsch’s license, ending an 18-month surgical career that had left two dead and many more paralyzed or in chronic pain. The $250,000 donation came the week after the second of the three lawsuits.

McLane has given Abbott money before, but it’s generally been much less; the most he had given in the past, according to the campaign filings the Morning News references, was $25,000.

See here for prior posts on Dr. Duntsch, and here for the DMN story on which the Observer piece is based. By the way, I can only presume that Observer author Saul Eblein is not a baseball fan or else he might have recognized Drayton McLane as the former owner of the Houston Astros. McLane, who gave more to Abbott in that one fell swoop than he had to Rick Perry in a dozen years, insists there was nothing fishy about the donation, its size, its timing, or Abbott’s subsequent defense of Duntsch. And we should believe him because that’s how people like Drayton McLane got to be where they are in the world today, by tossing their money around indiscriminately without even a passing thought to the possible return on investment. I’m sure Greg Abbott won’t treat him or the things he values any differently than he’d treat any other rich Republican donor. They’re all equals in his eyes.

More on Abbott and Duntsch

The Observer follows up its earlier reporting on disastrous doctor Christopher Duntsch and the efforts of Greg Abbott to ensure he is never held accountable for his actions.

Dr. Christopher Duntsch

When I wrote about Duntsch last August, there were quite a few unanswered questions. Chief among them: Why did he do it? Was he a sociopath? A drug addict? And with his record of patients dying or ending up paralyzed, how was he allowed to keep practicing?

Thanks to the new litigation, we have at least a few answers. According to the lawsuits, Duntsch had drug problems that Baylor should have known about. The lawsuits allege a shocking list of behaviors that, if true, should have been huge red flags for Baylor. They contend he was in treatment for drug abuse during his residency at the University of Tennessee. That he was abusing prescription drugs and skipped out on five drug tests that Baylor Plano asked him to take, without any consequences. That he kept a bottle of vodka under his desk; that a bag of white powder showed up in his private bathroom. That he took off for Las Vegas immediately after a surgery, leaving his patient unattended. But despite this, and despite the numerous warnings about Duntsch from doctors and nurses who had worked with him, Baylor continued to allow Duntsch to operate, and even publicized his practice and encouraged doctors like Morguloff’s to refer their patients to him.

According to the lawsuits, the reason for this was simple: The hospital had advanced Duntsch $600,000 to move from Tennessee to Dallas. “Baylor had spent a lot of money on Duntsch,” attorney Jim Girards wrote in Passmore’s complaint, “and they wanted it back.” If he didn’t work, they didn’t get paid.

But in Texas, it is extremely difficult to use the courts to hold a hospital accountable for allowing a dangerous doctor to operate, thanks to a decade-long campaign, aided by the Texas Supreme Court and the Texas Legislature. Under current law, Baylor Plano can make money off a high-dollar surgeon like Duntsch without being financially accountable for anything that he does.

The four Duntsch patients want to change that. Their only recourse is to challenge the constitutionality of the laws shielding Baylor Plano. If they win, hospitals could once again be responsible for the actions of the doctors they allow to practice. But they’re confronting powerful opponents, not just a lucrative hospital. Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who’s made limiting lawsuits a feature of his political career, is facing off against them in court. Barring an upset in court, it’s likely that the hospitals who allowed Duntsch to kill and maim patients will never pay a cent in damages.

[…]

Where does this leave Dr. Duntsch’s victims? With little choice but to challenge the constitutionality of the malice law upon which the hospital immunity rests. The legal challenge in the Baylor case is the first constitutional challenge since tort reform to the credentialing laws, the first attempt to open hospitals back up to liability for the doctors they allow to practice. But Barry Morguloff and the three other plaintiffs are facing a powerful adversary: Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is the Republican nominee for governor.

Tort reform has been a major feature of Abbott’s political career. In 2002, when Abbott was running for attorney general against Kirk Watson, he made tort reform a central plank of his campaign. In his campaign literature, he referred to Watson as a “plaintiff personal injury trial lawyer,” which is to say, the kind of lawyer people love to hate.

Abbott was well-supported in that campaign, and in all subsequent ones, by groups pushing lawsuit reform. According to Texans for Public Justice, between 1997 and 2014 Abbott took in $2.3 million in contributions from doctors, hospitals and the two PACs set up to push tort reform. About $400,000 came directly from hospitals.

Abbott was well-supported in that campaign, and in all subsequent ones, by groups pushing lawsuit reform. According to Texans for Public Justice, between 1997 and 2014 Abbott took in $2.3 million in contributions from doctors, hospitals and the two PACs set up to push tort reform. About $400,000 came directly from hospitals.

If anything, those numbers understate how much he’s brought in from tort reform interests. In his gubernatorial race, Abbott has brought in $2.8 million from what Texans for Public Justice calls “tort tycoons,” the 34 super-rich Texans who also gave heavily to pro-tort reform groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform PAC. Since his race for Attorney General in 2001, they’ve given Abbott $10 million. All told, about one out of every five dollars he’s raised in his time in office has come from people and political groups staunchly imposed to strengthening the tort laws.

See here and here for some background, and be sure to read the whole story. It’s not an exaggeration to say that if Abbott wins again on this, there will be basically no way to hold incompetent doctors and the hospitals that employ them accountable for any damage they cause.

Abbott sides with medical malpractice

Awesome.

Dr. Christopher Duntsch

The Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano, accused of protecting a neurosurgeon who allegedly killed and maimed patients, gained an ally this week in Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott.

Abbott filed motions to intervene in three separate federal court suits brought against Baylor Plano by former patients of Dr. Christopher Duntsch. They have alleged that Baylor knew Duntsch was a dangerous physician but did not stop him from performing back surgery.

The suits challenge the constitutionality of a state law that requires the plaintiffs to prove that Baylor acted with actual intent to harm patients. Abbott seeks court permission to defend the statute.

If Abbott’s position is upheld, the patients would have a much harder time winning a suit against Baylor. One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, James Girards of Dallas, criticized the attorney general’s motion.

“I think it’s absolutely insane that he has chosen to defend the hospital that enabled this … sociopathic neurosurgeon to wreak havoc on its patients,” Girards said. “I hate to think he’s doing it to pander to the medical lobby.”

Kay Van Wey, a Dallas lawyer who filed two of the suits, also attacked the attorney general. “Mr. Abbott is making it clear that his priority is to protect hospitals, not the patients they harm,” she said.

Wondering where you’ve heard the name Christopher Duntsch before? Let me quote from this Observer story, which I blogged about last October.

In late 2010, Dr. Christopher Duntsch came to Dallas to start a neurosurgery practice. By the time the Texas Medical Board revoked his license in June 2013, Duntsch had left two patients dead and four paralyzed in a series of botched surgeries.

Physicians who complained about Duntsch to the Texas Medical Board and to the hospitals he worked at described his practice in superlative terms. They used phrases like “the worst surgeon I’ve ever seen.” One doctor I spoke with, brought in to repair one of Duntsch’s spinal fusion cases, remarked that it seemed Duntsch had learned everything perfectly just so he could do the opposite. Another doctor compared Duntsch to Hannibal Lecter three times in eight minutes.

When the Medical Board suspended Duntsch’s license, the agency’s spokespeople too seemed shocked.

“It’s a completely egregious case,” Leigh Hopper, then head of communications for the Texas Medical Board, told The Dallas Morning News in June. “We’ve seen neurosurgeons get in trouble but not one such as this, in terms of the number of medical errors in such a short time.”

But the real tragedy of the Christopher Duntsch story is how preventable it was. Over the course of 2012 and 2013, even as the Texas Medical Board and the hospitals he worked with received repeated complaints from a half-dozen doctors and lawyers begging them to take action, Duntsch continued to practice medicine. Doctors brought in to clean up his surgeries decried his “surgical misadventures,” according to hospital records. His mistakes were obvious and well-documented. And still it took the Texas Medical Board more than a year to stop Duntsch—a year in which he kept bringing into the operating room patients who ended up seriously injured or dead.

In Duntsch’s case, we see the weakness of Texas’ unregulated system of health care, a system built to protect doctors and hospitals. And a system in which there’s no way to know for sure if your doctor is dangerous.

I’d call this a case of putting politics above people, and it’s completely in character for Greg Abbott. I think he just doesn’t believe anyone should be able to sue for medical malpractice. You can call it what you want – Texas Watch calls it “defending the indefensible” – I’m sure the Wendy Davis campaign will have a name for it as well.

Another poster child for tort “reform”

The Observer asks how well you know your doctor.

In late 2010, Dr. Christopher Duntsch came to Dallas to start a neurosurgery practice. By the time the Texas Medical Board revoked his license in June 2013, Duntsch had left two patients dead and four paralyzed in a series of botched surgeries.

Physicians who complained about Duntsch to the Texas Medical Board and to the hospitals he worked at described his practice in superlative terms. They used phrases like “the worst surgeon I’ve ever seen.” One doctor I spoke with, brought in to repair one of Duntsch’s spinal fusion cases, remarked that it seemed Duntsch had learned everything perfectly just so he could do the opposite. Another doctor compared Duntsch to Hannibal Lecter three times in eight minutes.

When the Medical Board suspended Duntsch’s license, the agency’s spokespeople too seemed shocked.

“It’s a completely egregious case,” Leigh Hopper, then head of communications for the Texas Medical Board, told The Dallas Morning News in June. “We’ve seen neurosurgeons get in trouble but not one such as this, in terms of the number of medical errors in such a short time.”

But the real tragedy of the Christopher Duntsch story is how preventable it was. Over the course of 2012 and 2013, even as the Texas Medical Board and the hospitals he worked with received repeated complaints from a half-dozen doctors and lawyers begging them to take action, Duntsch continued to practice medicine. Doctors brought in to clean up his surgeries decried his “surgical misadventures,” according to hospital records. His mistakes were obvious and well-documented. And still it took the Texas Medical Board more than a year to stop Duntsch—a year in which he kept bringing into the operating room patients who ended up seriously injured or dead.

In Duntsch’s case, we see the weakness of Texas’ unregulated system of health care, a system built to protect doctors and hospitals. And a system in which there’s no way to know for sure if your doctor is dangerous.

Reading this reminded me of another poster boy for tort “reform”, Doctor Eric Scheffey, who plowed a path of death and mayhem a few years ago before finally being stopped. These guys are obviously atypical, but as the Observer story points out, the system we have today has almost no power to do anything about them. The Texas Medical Board’s authority is very limited. Hospitals are not required to disclose the reasons why a particular doctor is no longer employed there, so bad doctors’ bad acts don’t follow them from one place to another. And of course, thanks to our draconian medical malpractice lawsuit limits, the courts no longer serve as a way to get the bad apples out of the barrel. The vast majority of doctors are competent and conscientious, so for most of us it’s not a problem. But for a non-trivial number of unfortunate people – the Observer story documents a few of them – it’s a matter of life and death. And our famously “pro-life” legislature could not care less.