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Liver Woes Were News to UCI Chief

Times Staff Writer

UC Irvine Chancellor Michael V. Drake said Monday that he had not been told about the failures of the liver transplant program at UCI Medical Center even though hospital officials had been aware of the deficiencies for four years.

During a meeting with more than 250 faculty and staff at the medical center in Orange, an event that alternated between stern lecture and motivational rally, Drake said he learned of the problems when they were reported in The Times last week.

“I was surprised,” said Drake, an ophthalmologist who was appointed chancellor in July after serving as the UC system’s vice president for health affairs. “And I am extremely disappointed that I was surprised. I don’t like that at all.”

The hospital abruptly shut down its liver transplant program Thursday, after the federal government revoked its certification. The action came after The Times reported that 32 patients had died in the last two years waiting for transplants while the hospital turned down dozens of donated organs.

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The hospital also continued recruiting patients to the waiting list even though it has not had a full-time liver transplant surgeon since July 2004. The 106 patients still waiting for livers are being transferred to other centers.

Drake spoke sternly and detailed plans to address the UC Board of Regents this week. He said he would also finish assembling a task force of experts, most from outside the state, to investigate and make recommendations.

He described communication as lacking but said he would reserve judgment until the task force reported.

“We don’t like the way things have gone,” Drake said. “We need to learn what we can to do better.”

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In the last 10 years, the school has faced other scandals in its medical program. In 1994, fertility doctors stole women’s eggs and embryos and implanted them in other patients, who later gave birth. And in 1999, the school fired the director of its donated cadaver program amid suspicion that he improperly sold body parts, solicited cash donations, performed unauthorized autopsies and misappropriated funds.

Those situations, Drake said, were different because people were acting improperly for their own gain. That is not the case this time, he said.

Even so, he said, the task force will try to make sure there is not an institutional problem “woven in so every five years we have a surprise.”

Drake did not mention the other UCI medical scandals of recent years, including a professor who used patient blood samples for research without permission and cancer researchers who improperly charged patients for experimental treatments.

Also Monday, Irvine attorney Lawrence Eisenberg filed a class-action lawsuit against UCI Medical Center alleging negligence, fraud and misrepresentation. The complaint says UCI improperly rejected donated livers and failed to disclose to patients that the “vast majority of UCI transplant patients would never receive a liver transplant at UCI.”

“It is clear that UCI breached its obligation to liver patients since the patients were allowed to die while UCI struggled behind the scenes, unable to correct the insurmountable problems in the liver transplant program,” Eisenberg said.

Elodie Irvine, the transplant patient whose complaints prompted a federal investigation, has filed an appeal of her settlement with UCI earlier this year. Her attorney, Donna Bader, said school officials did not properly disclose the problems with the transplant program when they offered the $50,000 settlement.

While Drake expressed his disapproval at the meeting, Dr. Ralph Cygan, its chief executive, tried to provide explanations.

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He said Orange County -- the fifth most populous county in the country -- desperately needs a liver transplant program, particularly because its immigrant population posts high levels of serious liver disease.

Since it was launched in 1993, Cygan said, the university has devoted “an enormous amount of resources to make this project work for the community.”

He said he knew the program needed improvement and staffing. The medical center formed a partnership with UC San Diego last year to help build the program and allow patients in the gravest conditions to be listed in both counties, Cygan said. A surgeon was recently hired to head UCI’s liver transplant program but hadn’t started.

“Our goal was to build the best liver transplant program in the West. We felt we were this close to achieving those goals,” Cygan said, holding his fingers an inch apart.

He described the transplant team as “heroes and heroines,” not villains. He noted that in the last two years, 538 people had died waiting for livers at California’s 14 transplant centers. Of those, 32 were at UCI Medical Center.

During a question-and-answer session, a pediatrician said he did not like minimizing the seriousness of the allegations with statistics.

Drake responded: “We’re not in any way interested in making excuses or anything that looks that way.”


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