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University of California regents settle whistleblower suit

The University of California has reached a settlement with the former head of orthopedic surgery at University of California, Los Angeles. The settlement ended a seven-week whistleblower trial in Los Angeles.

The UC regents approved a $10 million payout to the surgeon who sued the university and senior officials, UC regents and other surgeons. He alleged that physicians accepted payments from health care companies and even non-profit organizations.

The doctor says he was pressured to resign from his position as department chairman in 2010 after he complained to university officials about the financial benefits allegedly being reaped by some of his colleagues. He says that he was also excluded from activities and denied referrals of patients. He filed his complaint alleging whistleblower retaliation the following year. He has been employed by UCLA throughout the litigation. However, as part of the settlement, he is leaving the faculty.

The physician asserted in his claim that UCLA doctors' financial relationships with medical device makers like Medtronics could negatively impact medical research and patient care. He claimed that the university allowed this financial influence to continue because it benefited the medical school.

The plaintiff noted that "these problems exist in the broader medical system and they are not restricted to UCLA." Indeed, there has been increasing government investigation into the type of payments he cited. The Physician Payments Sunshine Act, part of the new federal health care law, requires disclosure of financial relationships between doctors and health care companies. It is scheduled to take effect this fall.

According to UCLA Health System's chief compliance officer, the school thoroughly investigated the surgeon's allegations and found that "the vast majority were unsubstantiated." The UC regents say they settled the suit "to end a prolonged conflict" and avoid "substantial expense and inconvenience."

The chief compliance officer noted that in a couple of the instances of inappropriate payments raised during the case, the doctor either didn't know he was in violation of policy, or the actions didn't violate policy in place at the time. However, one of the plaintiff's attorneys contends that the UC system ignored these doctors' activities and failed to enforce its own rules.

Whistleblower protection cases often follow a familiar pattern: An employee calls attention to wrongdoing and suffers retaliation and sometimes termination for speaking out. These employees can and should get the advice of experienced legal professionals to help protect their employment rights and seek justice.

Source:  The Los Angeles Times, "UC OKs paying surgeon $10 million in whistleblower-retaliation case" Chad Terhune, Apr. 22, 2014

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