Dr. Lokesh Tantuwaya became ensnared in one of the most notorious healthcare fraud cases in California history when he was charged with accepting millions in bribes to perform surgery at a now-defunct hospital in Long Beach.
The San Diego spinal surgeon did so many operations at the hospital, about 100 miles from his home, the facility’s owner provided him with a private jet, according to court records.
Several patients he operated on there have sued him for malpractice, including a woman who alleged her routine back surgery was botched so badly her leg had to be amputated.
Tantuwaya, who was indicted for fraud in 2018, has not yet gone to trial. He has pleaded not guilty. In June, a judge ruled he was a flight risk and confined him to a Santa Ana jail cell to await his day in federal court. He did not respond to requests for comment. His lawyer declined to discuss the case.
Despite the federal indictment — and Tantuwaya being put on probation three times in the last four years by the Medical Board of California in separate cases accusing him of domestic violence, gross negligence, and dishonesty — his license remains active.
Board spokesman Carlos Villatoro declined to comment on Tantuwaya’s case, but wrote in an email, “Dr. Tantuwaya’s license is renewed and current and [he] may practice medicine in California as long as he follows the terms and conditions of his probation.”
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Patients, advocates and others contend the board is too lenient with doctors such as Tantuwaya.
“If he were in any other profession, his license would be yanked,” said Marian Hollingsworth, co-founder of the Patient Safety League, a group of victims and family members of people who were harmed or killed by medical negligence. “Any reasonable person would ask, ‘Why does he still have his license?’”
Tantuwaya’s current legal problems began at Long Beach’s Pacific Hospital.
The former owner, Michael D. Drobot, went to federal prison for orchestrating a nearly $1-billion healthcare fraud in which he inflated the cost of metal hardware used in spinal surgeries.
Drobot sent hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of fraudulent invoices to insurance providers, much of that to the state’s workers’ compensation insurance system. To keep generating those bills, he paid more than $50 million in illegal kickbacks to doctors across the state to bring their patients to Pacific Hospital, according to prosecutors.
Tantuwaya was charged with accepting $3.2 million in bribes, which were provided in the form of cash, bogus contracts and a lease agreement for the private jet, according to the indictment.
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Tantuwaya, a licensed pilot, handed over his passport, a million dollars and the jet as conditions to be released awaiting trial, which has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
He remained free until earlier this year, when federal agents learned he’d secretly purchased another plane and had discussed fitting it with an extended fuel tank, “just in case he needed to go far away,” according to a motion to revoke bond filed by prosecutors.
Susan del Castillo, who said she has been dating Tantuwaya since 2019, told The Times he needs to stay close to home to care for his elderly parents and that he wants to go to trial to defend himself. “There has never been any talk of trying to flee,” she said.
There is no mention of Tantuwaya’s involvement in the federal case on the medical board’s website because he has not been convicted. But his disciplinary record is long.
In 2014, he pinned his wife against a wall in front of their children and announced, “You kids can leave, but I’m going to kill your mother tonight,” according to board records.
When one of his daughters threatened to call 911, Tantuwaya grabbed her by the hair and yanked her to the ground to try to stop her, the records state. She called anyway. He was arrested and pleaded guilty to attempting to dissuade a witness from reporting a crime and child endangerment.
The board revoked his license, stayed that action, and put him on three years’ probation, which allowed him to keep practicing.
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In 2019, the board ruled that Tantuwaya had been grossly negligent for failing to provide pain medication to a patient after surgery and that he was dishonest during the board’s investigation, creating and post-dating records for the patient’s file in an apparent attempt to cover his tracks.
He had also failed to alert the board within 30 days that he had been convicted of violating a protective order granted to his wife for which he spent 15 days in jail.
The board once again revoked his license, stayed the revocation, and put him on probation, this time for two years.
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Months later, citing more violations of his wife’s protective order, the board went through the process again — revoking his license, staying the revocation, and putting him on four years’ probation.
Even when the board finds grounds for revocation a second time — or a third time — Villatoro said state law requires it, whenever possible, to “take action that is calculated to aid in the rehabilitation of the licensee.”
I looked like a freakin’ map. I’m going, ‘What happened? There was nothing wrong with this leg, man, what is going on?’
— Tammy Martinez, who lost her left leg after a botched procedure by Tantuwaya
He said coming down too hard can lead to costly litigation with the doctor.
The board’s explanations offer little solace to San Diego truck driver Tammy Martinez, who had hurt her back on the job and was in danger of her workers’ compensation payments running out when the attorney handling her claim steered her to Tantuwaya in 2011.
Martinez thought it odd when he insisted on performing the operation more than a hundred miles north in Long Beach. But he told her not to worry, the owner of the hospital would send a van to pick her up and pay for her stay in a nice hotel. He’d even pay for her meals, she said in an interview.
It all fit the pattern of the scam. Martinez’s lawyer eventually went to prison for taking kickbacks from the hospital’s owner.
During the surgery, to fuse vertebrae using metal hardware, Tantuwaya and another surgeon assisting him didn’t notice that circulation was cut off to Martinez’s left leg, according to her lawsuit. A hospital staff member pointed out after the operation that Martinez’s left foot was cold and pale and had no pulse.
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The other surgeon began an emergency thrombectomy — a hunt for blood clots or other blockages in her arteries and veins — but the hospital lacked the equipment to do it properly, according to the lawsuit.
Martinez, who said she was unconscious the whole time, awoke in excruciating pain to find her leg covered in surgical scars. “I looked like a freakin’ map,” Martinez said. “I’m going, ‘What happened? There was nothing wrong with this leg, man, what is going on?’”
She remained in Pacific Hospital six days, until Tantuwaya and another doctor determined it was safe to discharge her, according to her lawsuit.
Thirty-six hours later, Martinez was in so much pain she drove herself in the middle of the night to Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside where surgeons determined her leg was gangrenous and would have to be amputated. She remembers one of them breaking the news by putting his hand on her shoulder and saying, “Sweetie, this should’ve never happened to you.”
Tantuwaya blamed Martinez’s lost leg on the other surgeon and Pacific Hospital staff but he acknowledged he cleared her for discharge and settled his share of the case for $500,000, according to a motion filed by his attorney.
Martinez, 62, said the hardest part of coping with the amputations — she had two, one below the knee and then, later, above the knee — is not being able to play baseball and basketball with her grandchildren.
The loss of her trucking career was also devastating. “It took my job away. I’ve always had to work for minimum wage because I’ve always been on welfare and then I finally had a freakin’ good job that I could support me and my kids.”
The medical board has taken no disciplinary action against Tantuwaya related to her case.
At a recent bond hearing at the Santa Ana federal court, Tantuwaya’s criminal defense attorney, Karren Kenney, refused to discuss his disciplinary record.
But she held a printout of a lengthy email the reporter sent the night before with a list of questions and an explanation that the story was about troubled doctors who are allowed to continue practicing.
“Describing him as ‘troubled’ is troubling,” Kenney said, shortly before joining Tantuwaya at the defense table.
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