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After being discharged from an IHS hospital with a diagnosis of pinkeye, Lydell Begay suffered brain damage from a stroke.
Adria Malcolm for The Wall Street Journal
Doctors who have had multiple malpractice claims can face huge premiums for insurance in private practice, even if they win cases, insurance actuaries say. Because the U.S. government covers malpractice claims, IHS doctors don’t need to carry their own coverage—nor will they pay any settlements out of their own pockets, in most cases.
That can make the agency an attractive destination for physicians with past claims. A 2011 survey of IHS doctors by a physician-recruiting firm found that many considered those malpractice rules a top perk of the job.
was hit with almost a dozen malpractice lawsuits by 2006, according to court and licensing records. His malpractice insurer, at one point, said in a letter that it would discontinue his coverage in part “due to prior claims activity,” including one case that later settled for $675,000. That case involved a routine surgery that went awry, leading to a double amputation and, months later, a patient’s death.
Dr. Femi-Pearse had the kind of conduct issues that trigger medical-board sanctions. In 2004, Norton Community Hospital, in Virginia, suspended him after a patient complained he sexually abused her during a checkup after surgery.
“All he wanted to do was kiss me and pull out his penis and show it to me,” said
the patient, in an interview.
In letters to regulators, Dr. Femi-Pearse said that he had a previous consensual sexual relationship with Ms. McCracken, which she denied in an interview.
He was acquitted of a criminal charge, but medical boards in Virginia and Kentucky, where he also practiced, required his visits with female patients be chaperoned. The boards also cited him for prescribing diet pills to nurses.
In early 2008, Dr. Femi-Pearse started work for the IHS in Arizona. He was sanctioned by the Kentucky medical board around that time. He later told the board he couldn’t find work in Kentucky because of the sanctions. “The hospitals all say they do not want a ‘Flagged’ Physician,” he wrote.
Several IHS officials, including
wrote to the Kentucky board several years later to vouch for Dr. Femi-Pearse, who at the time was asking for the restrictions to be lifted. Dr. Waite himself had lost one of his licenses, in Ohio, in 2006 over an alleged pattern of misdiagnosing critically ill patients, records show.
Dr. Waite, who couldn’t be reached for comment, was named in a 2017 malpractice lawsuit that alleged a 6-year-old girl suffered brain damage after she suffocated on a misplaced intubation tube at an IHS facility. In September, the government admitted negligence and agreed the girl’s “past reasonable and necessary medical expenses are $500,000,” court filings show.
After Kentucky lifted its restrictions, citing his colleagues’ support, Dr. Femi-Pearse became a full-time employee at an IHS hospital in Claremore, Okla., in 2012. The government last year paid a $618,890.64 judgment over a colostomy the doctor performed that spilled fecal matter under a patient’s skin. Last month, it paid a $500,000 settlement after he allegedly botched a hernia repair, leaving a debilitating injury despite additional surgeries.
Dr. Femi-Pearse said in a deposition he was later fired by the IHS over a privacy violation that he denied. In the deposition, he denied having been sued for malpractice before joining the IHS, other than the one case that settled. He referred questions from the Journal to the IHS.
said an IHS hospital in Fort Defiance, Ariz., was down to one surgeon—her—when she helped recruit Dr. Femi-Pearse in 2008. She didn’t know then about his history of malpractice allegations, Dr. Lowery said. “I would not have hired someone like that if I had known,” she said.
The Journal found that multiple reports had been submitted about Drs. Femi-Pearse, Stachura and several others, before their hirings by the IHS, to a government-run database meant to alert hospitals of malpractice claims and sanctions. The IHS’s policies require managers to check that clearinghouse—the National Practitioner Data Bank.
IHS officials said the agency’s leaders don’t check whether local officials comply with that requirement.
At the time they were hired by the IHS, these doctors had multiple reports about them in a national database of malpractice payments and professional censures.
National Practitioner Data Bank entries
Board or employer sanction
Note: A single incident may result in multiple reports.
Sources: National Practitioner Data Bank entries through September 2011, licensing and hospital records
By the time obstetrician
was hired by the IHS in early 2012, he had accrued at least seven databank reports, a review of the databank shows, including some referencing North Carolina medical-board sanctions over an alleged sexual relationship with a patient.
In 2011, Augusta University Medical Center, in Georgia, also reported to the databank that it had barred Dr. Zabenko from treating patients after a series of surgical complications, a copy of the report shows. In a response to the hospital’s allegations, he acknowledged his complication rate was higher than other doctors in his department, but said it was within normal bounds.
At least one prospective employer asked the Augusta hospital for more information about him, emails reviewed by the Journal show. A hospital clerk said the facility could find no record of correspondence with the IHS about him.
In July 2013, Dr. Zabenko struggled to deliver a baby at the IHS’s Belcourt, N.D., hospital, with a vacuum extractor, as the fetus’s heart rate grew irregular. The baby died soon after birth. A medical-board reprimand later said Dr. Zabenko should have resorted to a C-section “hours earlier.”
The U.S. government paid $900,000 to settle a claim by the baby’s mother, the Treasury data show.
Dr. Zabenko, who left the agency in 2014, didn’t respond to requests for comment. His wife,
said in a brief phone call: “He is a great doctor, and doctors make mistakes.”
The IHS operates about two dozen hospitals, including the Northern Navajo Medical Center in Shiprock, N.M.
IHS medical leaders at times moved quickly to remedy hiring decisions they came to regret. For some patients, that came too late.
briefly lost his Illinois medical license in 2004 over “gross negligence” when a surgical patient died, resulting in a $925,000 malpractice settlement, records show. It was the third malpractice payment on his behalf, licensing records show. Soon after, he closed his practice because he could no longer afford malpractice insurance, he said in an interview.
The Shiprock staff accepted Dr. Copeland’s explanation that he had become a better doctor through additional training, former colleagues said.
Two months after he arrived as the hospital’s chief of surgery in 2014, he allegedly punctured a patient’s intestines during a surgery, a malpractice lawsuit says. The next month, officials confronted him about four major complications at Shiprock, according to an IHS review.
Less than four months after Dr. Copeland arrived at Shiprock, hospital leaders stripped him of his privileges, and he soon quit, agency records show.
Dr. Copeland said that his problems in Illinois were due to personal issues at the time spilling over into his practice. He said the 2014 intestinal injury could have been a ruptured ulcer, not the result of a surgical mistake. He said he felt singled out, since colleagues with similar complications faced no punishment.
“It is easy to scapegoat people,” he said. “It is harder to change the system.”
the patient, said she had more than a dozen surgeries at a non-IHS hospital before finally recovering after a four-month stay. The government paid $475,000 to settle her case.
Dr. Copeland now teaches high-school biology in North Carolina.
—Jennifer S. Forsyth, Anna Wilde Mathews and Austen Hufford contributed to this article.
—Graphics by Joel Eastwood
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