As if the headlong charge for “tort reform” wasn't bad enough, politicians are now interfering in medical malpractice cases. Former Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry appears to be leading the way. Recently, the Dallas News revealed that as governor of the Lone Star State, Perry used his political influence – across state lines, no less – in order to please a couple of campaign donors. One of them is a surgeon who was under investigation by the state medical board – until Governor Perry intervened.
In this case, the state was not Texas, however, but Oklahoma – making Perry's interference all the more egregious. In 2010, the Oklahoma Board of Medical Licensure and Supervision began investigating orthopedic surgeon Steven Anagnost, M.D. over allegations of incompetence. Two years later, the Board filed a formal complaint with the state. The complaint cited nearly two dozen cases between 2008 and 2011 in which Dr. Anagnost had botched surgeries, making errors that left patients paralyzed, in chronic pain and in some cases, dead. Some of these surgeries involved the implantation of a spinal device, known as a dorsal column stimulator. It turns out that Anagnost had a financial relationship with the manufacturer of that device.
At the time the investigation got underway, Anagnost was a named defendant in over 30 lawsuits. Anagnost complained that he was being targeted by competitors, who had approached him in 2005, asking if he would invest in their private clinic, the Tulsa Spine & Specialty Hospital. Anagnost declined the offer, going into practice for himself. He claimed that as a result, he was the victim of a “jihad started to get rid of me,” which he attributed to greed. He told Tulsa Today, “I was doing a better job, my practice was thriving and I was charging less.” Anagnost claimed that he was taking business away from other surgeons, and filed defamation suits against four of them.
Nonetheless, patient lawsuits continued to be filed against Anagnost. According to the Dallas News, Anagnost settled several of the lawsuits. However, he failed to comply with state law when he neglected to report those settlements to the state board. Anagnost also found himself under investigation for Medicare fraud. Allegedly, he billed the federal health care agency for surgeries that were never performed, and overbilled Medicare for other procedures.
As lawsuits piled up, and Anagnost's problems increased, some old friends and acquaintances started coming to his rescue. Among them: one Richard Powell of Knoxville, Tennessee – who had contributed to Rick Perry's previous presidential campaign to the tune of $2500. Anagnost also kicked in $2500 – the maximum contribution from an individual allowed by law. It turns out that Anagnost and Powell's son, Richard Powell Jr., were old chums from high school – a rather exclusive private boarding school in Tennessee. Both Richard Powell Jr. and his wife have significant ties to the Texas GOP. At one time, the younger Powell was the managing director of a prominent Washington D.C. lobbying firm that has spent $400,000 on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry this year alone.
By 2013, the Oklahoma Board of Medical Licensure and Supervision had spent $600,000 in its ongoing investigation of Dr. Steven Anagnost. It was at this point that Rick Perry made a personal telephone call to his fellow Republican governor in the Sooner State, Mary Fallin. Perry's position on medical malpractice is well-known. In 2003, he signed a law limiting personal injury awards in medical malpractice cases to $250,000 – which he continues to brag is “the most sweeping tort reform in the nation.”
Apparently, curtailing the rights of patients in his own state of Texas isn't enough. He decided to carry his poison across the state line. When he heard his campaign donor was at risk of losing his medical license for incompetence, Perry called on Fallin – and shortly thereafter, the state medical board's $600,000 investigation of Dr. Steven Anagnost came to an abrupt halt.
Governor Fallin's general counsel, Steven Mullins, met with the board, assuring them that he had no intention of interfering with the investigation. However, according to the board's executive director, Mullins said “Governor Fallin didn’t want any more calls from Rick Perry about this, that Governor Perry said it was a travesty,” and asked about “what would it take to make it go away.” As a result, the board came up with a deal in which Dr. Anagnost was not required to admit to any liability nor surrender his medical license. Anagnost paid a $10,000 fine, and agreed to undergo additional training in order to upgrade his surgical skills and learn about proper billing procedures.
As governor of Texas, Rick Perry was infamous for his “old boy” politics, abusing the power of his office in order to reward friends and punish his enemies. However, his interference in this case takes corruption to a new level. Of course, Mary Fallin is a member of the Republican Governor's Association, and would have had little problem doing a favor for a fellow GOP governor. The entire issue demonstrates not only the level of corruption, but how medical malpractice plaintiffs face an uphill battle.
Despite this blatantly political fix, Anagnost's troubles are not over. Nine of the forty-five lawsuits filed against him since 2005 are still pending. Virginia Buchanan, head of Levin Papantonio's medical malpractice department, says “We use the resources that we've garnered over the 50 years that the firm has been in existence to try to find out why something very difficult, very unfair, and very devastating has happened in [the plaintiff's] life.”
While Rick Perry may have been able to save his pet donor's medical license, not even he can prevent Anagnost and those like him from being held accountable for their mistakes.