Regents Laud Chancellor in UCI Probe : Crisis: Laurel L. Wilkening is praised for her handling of the fertility clinic scandal. Possible victims may number 75.
University of California regents roundly praised UC Irvine Chancellor Laurel L. Wilkening on Thursday for her handling of the campus’ fertility clinic crisis, even as officials acknowledged that the number of patients possibly ensnared in the egg-swapping scheme has soared to at least 75.
Based on “new information” received by the university last week, Wilkening reported that UCI had sent letters to 58 women on Thursday alone, notifying them that they may have been donors or recipients of stolen eggs and embryos at two Orange County clinics. One or more letters now have been sent to at least 75 women, far more than the 35 possible victims estimated by the university this summer.
Wilkening said the university is moving quickly to notify patients based on clinicians’ analysis of a seven-page list of 240 patients prepared by a fertility clinic embryologist. The list has been in the hands of university-hired attorneys since early October but was overlooked until last week.
Not everyone on the list was involved in an illicit transfer, the chancellor said, but the estimate of possible victims is based on a partial review and seems likely to grow.
“If we think there may be even a slight chance that the [egg or embryo] transfer was unconsented, we are sending those patients a letter inviting them to contact us so we can provide counseling and work with the patient to determine if the transfer was consented or not,” Wilkening said.
Three doctors at clinics in Orange and Garden Grove have been accused by the University of California of stealing patients’ eggs and embryos and giving them to other women. The university also has accused Drs. Ricardo H. Asch, Jose P. Balmaceda and Sergio C. Stone of pocketing university funds, defrauding insurance companies and engaging in research misconduct. The doctors deny any deliberate wrongdoing.
On Thursday, Wilkening’s 45-minute update on the fertility clinic crisis, during which she aggressively defended her record, drew positive--at times effusive--reviews from the Board of Regents.
“Chancellor Wilkening . . . has had to tackle one of the most complex and highly charged problems ever to confront a campus of the University of California,” UC President Richard Atkinson said in a prepared statement.
“She is meeting that challenge with vigor, honesty and a determination that shows the steel of which she was made.”
Said Regent Meredith J. Khachigian of San Clemente: “As a regent that lives in Orange County, where you have the daily barrage of these issues, I want to compliment UCI and certainly the chancellor . . . with the prompt and consistent response to the allegations.
“It’s one of these things where you think you have everything out . . . but then something else happens.”
The only sharp critiques came outside the regents’ San Francisco meeting hall. Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, who arrived after Wilkening’s presentation because his plane from Burbank was grounded by fog, said that UCI’s recent flurry of patient notifications comes only after pointed prodding by critics and the media.
“I don’t think the university was interested until recently in getting to the bottom of this stuff,” said Davis, who is a member of the board by virtue of his state office.
“Up until yesterday the university was derelict in its responsibility to the public and the patients. Hopefully, today marks a new beginning.”
Wilkening said she delivered her remarks in response to a request for information by state Sen. Tom Hayden (D-Santa Monica), who she said decided not to attend “at the last minute.”
Hayden responded angrily to her comment, saying that the reason he did not come was that university officials have refused to respond to his concerns about a “cover-up.” He said that Wilkening and other UC officials deliberately hid from his legislative committee this spring their efforts to reach a quiet settlement with the doctors, outside public view.
“They’re circling the wagons,” Hayden said of the regents. “They don’t live in the real world. A lot of us feel deceived and manipulated . . . and it’s all unnecessary and tragic.”
Wilkening described the fertility clinic fiasco as tragic as well--but said the blame lies squarely with the doctors.
“It is hard to fully convey my sense of frustration at not having enough information to be able to tell patients exactly what happened,” she told the regents in a presentation complete with slides and handouts.
“And where are the people who could answer these questions? Where are Dr. Ricardo Asch . . . and his associate . . . Dr. Jose Balmaceda? They should be sitting here answering my questions and answering your questions. But they are not here. They are not even in the country.”
Asch is now practicing medicine in a Mexican clinic, and Balmaceda has returned to his native Chile. Both have sold their homes in the United States. Although the doctors are under criminal investigation by federal authorities, no charges have been filed against them. Stone is still living in Orange County.
Wilkening acknowledged that questions have arisen about why the doctors are still on paid administrative leave from the faculty, receiving salaries totaling nearly $300,000 annually. That, she said, is the result of a generally sound university policy designed to protect faculty against assaults on academic freedom.
But in rare cases of criminal misconduct, she and several regents agreed, it may be appropriate to provide for more timely disciplinary action.
The UC general counsel’s office agreed to look into a suggestion that the doctors’ salaries be paid into an interest-bearing account that might later be used to compensate their alleged victims.