Patients scarred, insurance firms duped in massive scam, L.A. County prosecutors say

The patients were told a board-certified orthopedic surgeon would conduct their operations.

But the surgeries were instead performed by a physician's assistant who had never attended medical school and was not overseen by the surgeon during the operations, which were billed as the surgeon's work, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

The results for nearly two dozen patients were lasting scars, prosecutors said. Many had to undergo additional surgeries to repair the damage.

The allegations were made Tuesday by prosecutors after two indictments were unsealed accusing Dr. Munir Uwaydah, his attorney and more than a dozen associates of carrying out one of the largest insurance fraud scams in California history.

Following a five-year investigation, prosecutors say they uncovered a vast conspiracy in which attorneys and others illegally referred patients to Uwaydah's clinics in exchange for up to $10,000 a month. At the doctor's clinics, a physician documented medical evaluations that never occurred and staff falsified MRI and other records to justify surgeries, some of which were unnecessary, prosecutors alleged.

More than $150 million was fraudulently billed to insurance companies, the D.A.'s office alleged.

The indictments, which list 132 felonies, name Uwaydah and 14 other defendants, including his physician's assistant and the billing manager at his medical practice.

The district attorney's office said Uwaydah was arrested Wednesday in Germany and is awaiting extradition to the United States. But Benjamin Gluck, who has previously represented Uwaydah, denied that authorities had arrested
Uwaydah or held him in custody.

Also arrested this week was Kelly Soo Park, 49, who worked as Uwaydah's office manager and personal assistant, authorities said.

In 2013, jurors acquitted Park of strangling 21-year-old Juliana Redding in her Santa Monica home in March 2008 — a verdict that marked a bruising defeat for the district attorney's office.

During the trial, a prosecutor told jurors that Redding was killed five days after her father broke off business negotiations with her ex-boyfriend, Uwaydah.

Prosecutors have previously said that Uwaydah made six-figure payments to Park and her family before the slaying and before Park's arrest. Uwaydah, prosecutors added, once bragged that he had a “female James Bond” in Park.

At the time, prosecutors said they believed Uwaydah fled the country after Park's arrest. The doctor was not charged in Redding's death and has denied any involvement.

Park's attorney, George Buehler, said Tuesday that he was not surprised that prosecutors are trying to tie his client to a medical fraud after she was acquitted in such a high-profile murder case. “I'm very suspicious of that,” Buehler said. “I don't think she is guilty of this. I think they're going to have a very hard time tying her to the fraud in this case.”

Eleven defendants, including Park, appeared in a downtown L.A. courtroom on Tuesday afternoon and entered not guilty pleas to the charges. Park was held on $18.5-million bail.

Uwaydah and 10 others are charged with conspiracy, insurance fraud, aggravated mayhem and capping, which entails illegal patient referrals. The indictments were the result of two separate grand jury proceedings earlier this year that saw 102 people testify, the district attorney's office said.

It's unclear how the probe unfolded, but one of the indictments shows that a district attorney's investigator posed undercover as a patient for three months.

A physician working for Uwaydah, David Johnson, is accused of overbilling insurance companies for prescription drugs and for medical examinations that he did not conduct.

Park and another defendant are accused of falsifying documents in connection with a case the California Medical Board brought against Uwaydah.

In 2009, the Medical Board accused Uwaydah of failing to document patient exams and committing gross negligence during two procedures in 2005 at Tustin Hospital and Medical Center, when investigators say he allowed his physician's assistant to conduct procedures while patients were under anesthesia.

That investigation resulted in a 2010 decision by the Medical Board placing Uwaydah on probation for two years. The Medical Board canceled his license in 2013, citing his prolonged absence from California.

In a separate indictment, Uwaydah's Encino-based attorney, Tatiana Torres Arnold, and three others are accused of conspiracy to commit insurance fraud, money laundering, illegal patient referrals and filing false tax returns. Arnold is also accused of having a role in the fraudulent surgery of a patient in 2009, according to prosecutors. She has been charged with one count of aggravated mayhem.

If convicted, Uwaydah and 11 others face up to life in state prison, the district attorney's office said.

Announcing the charges, Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said in a statement, “Although the patient victims sustained physical harm, we who pay higher premiums for health care suffer economic harm when scams are allowed to continue unchecked.”

For more news, follow @lacrimes and @matthjourno.

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

10:50 p.m.: This post has been updated throughout with additional details.

8:11 p.m.: This post was updated to include a comment from Dr. Munir Uwaydah's attorney disputing that his client had been arrested.

This post was originally published at 6:23 p.m.

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