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Feds: Doc's 'patients poisoned for money'

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Stating that Dr. Farid Fata "ordered his patients poisoned for money," federal prosecutors are seeking life in prison for the oncologist who built a storefront Rochester clinic into a medical empire before federal agents closed his offices in August 2013.

Fata pleaded guilty last September to multiple counts of fraudulent billing, participating in a kickback scheme and money laundering. A sentencing hearing is set to begin July 6.

Those charges only hint at the suffering described by the government in an 86-page memorandum filed in U.S. District Court on Thursday, as prosecutors make a case for what would likely be the longest sentence for health care fraud in American legal history. The $34.7 million in fraudulent health care billings — combined with Fata's disregard for the lives and welfare of his patients, his many examples of willful deceit and other factors — demand such a steep sentence, they say.

The government contends Fata victimized 553 patients and ordered at least 9,000 medically unnecessary infusions or injections, including chemotherapy for people who did not have cancer. He was more concerned about billings than the health of his patients, prosecutors say.

"I am concerned how come this patient had a balance of $51,000 since 2011 ... I need my money!" reads an email from Fata included in the filing.

Fata's attorney, Christopher Andreoff, declined to comment, although the defense is expected to file a rebuttal memorandum in the next few weeks that could challenge the dollar amount of fraud involved.

His web of documented lies and deceit included lying to his nurses when they challenged him about his overuse of Rituximab, a cancer drug. Fata told patients and nurses that he followed a "French" or "European" protocol, "which they could never locate through their own approach" — and which prosecutors say never existed. They contend that Fata fabricated a study purportedly done at Bon Secours/Cottage Health Services in 2006 to justify the treatments, which caused his patient victims chronic pain, anxiety and other symptoms.

Fata's cruelties included treating patients for cancer until they died, robbing them of opportunities to make end-of-life choices, resolve issues with their families or otherwise face their impending deaths with dignity and self-awareness, prosecutors said. Nurses and social workers in the practice reported he told new cancer patients they had a 70 percent chance of remission, regardless of the medical facts. "Fata would say he was giving those patients hope," according to the sentencing memo.

Family members helplessly watched loved ones being persuaded, and sometimes bullied by Fata, into accepting treatment when their cancer was too far advanced. "(Our) family doctor intervened," Dennis Wynn, the son of a patient, is quoted as saying. "He told us the truth. Just take him home to die in peace ... no more lies, no more false hope."

The federal prosecutors compare Fata to financial swindler Bernard Madoff, arguing that the cancer doctor's crimes were more heinous than any financial Ponzi scheme. "Fata did not just steal money, he caused cancer patients and vulnerable people he made believe were cancer patients, as props for days and weeks on end, subjecting them to unnecessary chemotherapy in order to steal more money," they claim. "In many ways, he is worse than Madoff."

Fata's sentencing hearing will take place before U.S. Judge Paul D. Borman with victim impact statements from former patients and their relatives. In 26 pages of excerpts filed this week, patients describe being placed on chemotherapy unnecessarily or receiving toxic and unnecessary drugs, suffering disabling physical and emotional pain. Two patients were treated for cancer they never had.

In one case described, Fata is alleged to have prescribed Zometa, a cancer supportive drug, to a patient based on false diagnoses of multiple myeloma and metastatic bone cancer. Although the patient didn't have these cancers, Fata signed a letter saying he would need to be on Zometa for the rest of his life, and dismissed his concerns about tooth pain: "All but two of (his) teeth have fallen out ... also the roots have fallen out and the necrosis (death) of the jaw bone left a hole in his gums from his mouth to his sinuses" that had to be surgically patched, prosecutors said.

"I have terrible dreams of what I look like to people who don't know me," the patient said in his impact statement.