Lawsuit alleges negligence, fraud at Keck Hospital

Photo of a large grey building with a red sign that reads "Keck School of Medicine of USC" in white lettering.
Former Keck professor Justin Cheongsiatmoy’s lawsuit alleges the University knew of fradulent billing and legal medical practices. (Simon Park | Daily Trojan File Photo)

In a lawsuit filed Sept. 20, former Keck School of Medicine professor Justin Cheongsiatmoy alleged USC’s Intraoperative Neurophysiological Monitoring program was the setting of fraudulent billing and illegal medical practices in a decade-long pattern. According to the suit, which has 21 causes of action, the University knew of these practices but took no action to stop them. Instead, when Cheongsiatmoy filed complaints detailing what was happening, he was fired. 

IONM, a program that operates at the Keck Hospital of USC and the Los Angeles County Medical Center, is meant to monitor a patient’s neurological signals during surgery and identify when permanent damage to the nervous system is likely. A trained doctor usually monitors these signals constantly and provides assistance if complications arise. 

However, Cheongsiatmoy, who was one of three IONM attending physicians, indicates that resident surgeons were left unsupervised, resulting in complications for patients, such as death or irreparable damage. In some cases, this occurred because the teaching surgeon was scheduled for procedures at both Keck Hospital and LAC+USC at the same time. 

By the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education’s standards, a teaching surgeon must always be present during a procedure. Moreover, Medicare requires a teaching physician to be present during high-risk or complex procedures in order to receive a reimbursement. Because of this, Cheongsiatmoy claims that not only were the IONM’s practices dangerous, but it was also illegal to file for reimbursement on procedures that failed to follow the guidelines. Had the protocol been followed, the suit claims, lives could have been saved.

Detailing one of the instances in which this happened, records show that a patient underwent brain surgery at LAC+USC the day before passing away. No teaching surgeon was present during the surgery, which was performed by a resident surgeon. The patient suffered severe bleeding from the brain and changes in IONM signals. However, with no physician present to interpret the data, a technologist had to do it, failing to correctly identify what the data changes meant.

A Voluntary Self Disclosure statement released by the University in March 2020 states Cheongsiatmoy’s allegations about the lack of supervision during procedures were “not substantiated.” 

The lawsuit also claims that both hospitals billed Medicare not only for unsupervised procedures but also for procedures that were never performed and that the University allegedly falsified records to misrepresent patient care. Cheongsiatmoy claims these fraudulent practices have cost taxpayers more than 200 million dollars. 

The suit states that former CEO of Keck Medicine of USC Tom Jackiewicz, former President Wanda Austin, President Carol Folt and members of the Board of Trustees were among a multitude of University officials who had knowledge of the scheme. 

Cheongsiatmoy also seeks reparations for loss of income, employment benefits and legal expenses as a result of being fired. He submitted complaints detailing the unauthorized practices to various senior employees, including Chair of the Department of Neurology Helena Chui, after which he was terminated in retaliation, according to the suit. Additionally, Cheongsiatmoy claims University employees made defamatory statements, telling his potential employers that Cheongsiatmoy assaulted his colleagues, which he claims prevented him from getting a new job. 

In the Voluntary Disclosure Agreement, the University recognized that there were mistakes in billing for procedures that were not properly monitored by teaching physicians. However, the University denied firing Cheongsiatmoy in retaliation. According to the document, Cheongsiatmoy’s contract came to an end and when he requested a pay raise, it was denied.

“Since this matter first came to our attention, we took immediate steps to investigate and address the underlying issues, including by providing reimbursements to the government and others as appropriate,” the University said in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “We are still reviewing the allegations in the amended complaint and will continue to cooperate with the government, which has not joined the lawsuit at this time.”

Cheongsiatmoy’s attorneys declined the Daily Trojan’s request for comment on the case.