About 80 malpractice claims that forced an Alamogordo hospital to seek bankruptcy court protection last summer have been settled for more than $33 million.
The Albuquerque Journal reported that that settlement lets the Gerald Champion Regional Medical Center, the largest hospital in Otero County, to emerge from bankruptcy protection.
Former patients alleged in lawsuits that they were injured when a Plexiglas-like cement that was used in spinal procedures and supposed to act as a cushion in the disk space and relieve spinal pain had seeped into other areas of the spine before it hardened, or hardened and later cracked into pieces.
Dr. Christian Schlicht, an anesthesiologist and pain management specialist, is accused of using fraudulent credentials to operate on patients even though he wasn’t a surgeon and injected the cement into patients’ spines in a procedure that turned out to be neither safe nor effective.
When an operating room nurse at the hospital reported to a supervisor that Schlicht’s back surgeries had gone too far, another doctor said that the nurse told him that she was told “to leave things the way they are.”
And after a health insurance company balked at paying for his procedures and questioned his qualifications, records show officials at the hospital took Schlicht’s side and threatened to sue the insurer.
Two years later, former patients began to file lawsuits contending the spinal procedures left them with debilitating injury and pain. Some have partial paralysis; others have lost bladder and bowel functions, court records allege.
Dr. Frank Bryant, the only other physician performing spine surgeries at the hospital, has said that Schlicht had told him in late 2008 that some of Schlicht’s neurosurgery training was falsified
Bryant, an orthopedic surgeon, sometimes performed spine operations with Schlicht.
Bryant, who was a defendant in the lawsuits along with Schlicht, said during his deposition that he thought Schlicht was a legitimate neurosurgeon but now says he was misled.
Bryant denied any wrongdoing.
Records show claims against Bryant were settled for $11.5 million earlier this year.
According to his deposition, Bryant said he always gave Schlicht the “benefit of the doubt,” but now believes Schlicht performed surgeries he wasn’t qualified to perform, billed for procedures incorrectly and gave false statements about his training and qualifications.
Bryant was recently reprimanded by the state Medical Board in connection with the cement injections but still retains his New Mexico medical license.
He closed his practice in February 2011. His lawyer said Bryant was in the process of leaving the state and establishing a practice elsewhere.
Last summer, Schlicht was hired as a senior flight surgeon at a U.S. Air Force base in Japan. He is still on assignment as a lieutenant colonel, according to an Air Force spokesman.
Schlicht’s osteopathic medical license in New Mexico has lapsed.
Citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination, Schlicht refused to answer most questions during a deposition in New Mexico in June 2011.
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