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Preying on the Sick : Climate in Area Is Ripe for Abuse by Unlicensed Doctors

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Guillermina Flores was scared.

In pain, unable to speak English and lacking insurance, she turned to the storefront clinic in her Pico Rivera neighborhood. The clinic had no sink or bathroom, but Flores felt comfortable with the reassuring man in the white jacket, who told her that she would need surgery. Jose Luis Reyes had business cards, a diploma on the wall, a beeper on his belt and a Bible at his side.

But authorities say Reyes was a fraud, a man with no medical license and only a 10th-grade education. He played doctor for 2 1/2 years, conducting pelvic exams, erroneously telling some patients they had cancer, even performing surgery, court records say. He was convicted in July of practicing medicine without a license and related charges, and is serving a three-year prison term.

Flores, 24, was one of his victims. Reyes performed surgery to correct her bleeding hemorrhoids, but she developed an infection that left her in pain and unable to walk. Eventually she returned to her native Mexico, where another doctor treated her.

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Prosecutors and medical experts say such abuses occur all too frequently in Latino communities with large numbers of poor immigrants.

Five people from the Southeast and neighboring areas have been prosecuted in the last year for illegally practicing medicine. The state Medical Board, which licenses doctors, is investigating three others.

One impostor allegedly told a patient she had brain cancer, then performed a phony operation. Another, running a practice out of an office filled with bogus credentials, illegally performed acupuncture. Reyes, 34, who set up the storefront clinic in Pico Rivera, was planning to amputate one patient’s hand at the time he was arrested.

Authorities say those cases only scratch the surface. State regulators and other officials say they believe many others are practicing medicine in the area without a license--prescribing medication without examining patients, misdiagnosing diseases and performing unnecessary surgery.

“These people are dangerous,” said Marc Posalski, a senior investigator with the Medical Board. Practicing medicine illegally, he said, “is a serious crime that places victims at serious risk.”

For a variety of reasons, the climate is ripe for abuse in Southeast cities with mostly Latino populations. Among them: poverty, a language barrier, lack of health insurance and transportation, and too few state regulators to clamp down on abuses, health professionals say.

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Even if they can afford medical attention, patients often cannot find a doctor close by. A recent study found just one licensed primary care physician for every 9,756 residents in Bell and one for every 13,345 in Cudahy, cities where more than eight of 10 residents are Latino. By comparison, the study found one doctor for every 275 people in Beverly Hills and Malibu. “If you have only one doctor who speaks Spanish in a neighborhood, people will prefer to go to that doctor,” said Rodolfo Diaz, executive director of the Community Health Foundation of East Los Angeles. “They assume that because others are going there that everything must be OK.”

Patients often are reluctant to report abuses. Many are here illegally and are afraid of contact with immigration officials, investigators say.

Culture, too, plays a role. Doctors in Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries are revered much like priests, experts say, and challenging the medical treatment is unthinkable for many patients. The phony doctors often play up their ties to Mexico, the homeland held dear by so many of their patients.

Jose Luis Reyes, for example, often spoke of his medical training in Mexico, and even attended church with his patients in Pico Rivera. He told patient Flores that he received his medical diploma in Tijuana. Another patient, Lupe Haro, said she went to the clinic for treatment of a cyst on her wrist after Reyes had treated several friends and relatives. Reyes spoke of his life-saving work in Southeast and San Gabriel Valley hospitals, including delicate brain surgery, Haro said.

“He said he was a doctor and he carried a Bible,” said the Mexican-born Haro, 29, who is now a U.S. citizen. “He was talking to us about God. We followed him to church.”

Haro said Reyes told her the cyst was cancerous. When it grew back and became infected despite two operations, Reyes said he would have to amputate her hand to stop the cancer from spreading.

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Haro decided to contact authorities. She said she also had heard complaints about Reyes’ treatments from others in the neighborhood, and she was concerned that he was involved in questionable financial transactions. She said, for example, that she had given him thousands of dollars to purchase a car for her that he never delivered.

Haro said she eventually went to another doctor, who removed the cyst and said it wasn’t cancerous.

Reyes’ attorney, deputy public defender Jerry Seiberling, said Reyes is “very remorseful about his conduct. I don’t think Mr. Reyes thought he was hurting anybody when he was practicing medicine.

“That’s not to say what he was doing wasn’t dangerous. I don’t think anybody approves of practicing medicine without a license.”

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Unlicensed doctors ply their trade in clinics, homes, motel rooms, even vehicles. Sometimes, they tell patients that they are performing surgery and then fake the procedure. Other times, they illegally provide alternative treatments, such as acupuncture.

Jesus Valencia Gomez was a respected soccer coach at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe Springs, but authorities say he also posed as a physician and dentist, handing out business cards at soccer matches.

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Lourdes Macias, a soccer enthusiast, said she sought Gomez’s help for pains in her neck and head. She said she trusted Gomez, who had an “educated vocabulary” and claimed he was trained in Guadalajara and operated medical clinics there. “Everything he was telling me, I believed,” said Macias, 24, who speaks little English. Gomez, 45, allegedly treated Macias in his van and in motel rooms in Pico Rivera and Whittier, drawing blood from her shoulder during checkups and massaging her to “dissolve” purported tumors in one of her breasts, she said.

The Montebello woman said she agreed to undergo surgery earlier this year after Gomez convinced her she would die unless he removed tumors in her head. Gomez took her to a motel room where he allegedly drugged Macias, shaved the top of her head and bandaged it. She contacted sheriff’s investigators after realizing there was no scar beneath the bandage.

Sheriff’s deputies arrested Gomez last month at his South Whittier apartment. They found syringes, antibiotics, prescription pads, long silver scissors and dental impressions. He faces trial next month in Norwalk Superior Court on several felony and misdemeanor charges, including practicing medicine without a license and sexual battery.

He pleaded not guilty, and is being held in lieu of $500,000 bond.

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Jose C. Vasquez, who operated a clinic in La Puente, is serving 270 days in County Jail for illegally practicing medicine.

Vasquez has a degree in naturopathic medicine, but Medical Board investigators say naturopathy--a form of holistic medicine that combines herbs, diet and lifestyle changes--is not a legal practice in California.

Even if it were, Vasquez, 31, went beyond his bounds by illegally ordering medical tests and prescribing medication, which only licensed doctors are allowed to do, said Posalski of the Medical Board. Vasquez also performed acupuncture without having a license from the board’s Acupuncture Committee, records show.

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In an interview earlier this year, Vasquez said he is a nutritional consultant, not a physician. He uses the title “doctor” because he has a Ph.D. in nutrition, although he declined to name the school he attended.

“Believe me, I am clean,” Vasquez said. “My education is legitimate. I am a holistic practitioner (and) I know my legal rights. I know how far I can go.”

Vasquez said he pleaded guilty to the charges under pressure from the Medical Board. He said state investigators harassed him because he is a holistic practitioner, an allegation that investigators denied.

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Even clinics owned by legitimate physicians in the Southeast and other areas sometimes hire unlicensed people to treat patients, according to health professionals. One doctor from Mexico said he has turned down repeated requests by physicians to work in their clinics, even though they are aware that he is not licensed to practice medicine in California.

The doctor, who works as a lab technician in East Los Angeles and asked not to be identified, said that many legitimate facilities employ graduates of foreign medical schools who are unfamiliar with standards and practices here. The result, he said, is shoddy care.

The mayor of Huntington Park, Ric V. Loya, said he also has received numerous complaints about clinics that employ unskilled people. Loya heads a task force that is examining the city’s health care problems.

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State officials see little chance of further clamping down on unlicensed doctors. State investigators are often unaware of problems because they inspect health facilities only if someone complains. Even then, the Medical Board has too few people to address the problem, with only 33 investigators to police more than 23,500 licensed doctors in Los Angeles County.

Officials said they hope that publicizing the abuses of unlicensed doctors will encourage more victims to come forward.

Guillermina Flores hopes that by speaking out, she too can help protect others from the kind of pain--and frustration--that continue to plague her. Flores’ hemorrhoids have returned, and she can’t afford more treatment.

“I regret that I went to that doctor,” she said. “He hurt a lot of lives. I’d like to see him destroyed, just like my life has been destroyed.”

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