Berman: Tears, fury at Fata's hearing

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

This story has been updated to correct the number of Maggie Dorsey's children, the age of one of them and her marital situation.

One by one, the victims stepped forward into the federal courtroom.

Each of them, 22 in all, was allotted 10 minutes to describe how 16 counts of Medicare fraud and other crimes — crimes of dollars and cents — translated into suffering, blood and tears, unspeakable physical pain, unexpected guilt, anger, humiliation and even hatred in their all too real human lives.

These were a few of the victims of Farid Fata, the Rochester oncologist whose elite credentials and large practice turned out to be a helpful front for bilking Medicare and private insurers of more than $34 million in medications and treatments. The former patients and their family members spoke instead of priceless losses. Grandchildren deceased loved ones would never see. Hours logged in waiting rooms — time that could have been spent living — that can never be retrieved.

They addressed the court from a microphone, without swearing in, as Fata, dressed in a business suit, stared straight ahead showing no emotion. Whether wearing elegant black dresses or cropped pants and T-shirts, sneakers or designer heels, the patients and their family members shared a common story of illness, suffering, betrayal, hurt and anger.

Patients described the financial toll of their illnesses, bankruptcies, foreclosed homes, often addressing their comments to their former doctor. "As we lost things one by one, you filled your bank account," said Geraldine Parkin, whose husband Tim Parkin was a patient but, she said outside the courtroom, too angry to attend the hearing.

These losses were the result of over-treatment with chemotherapy, misdiagnoses of cancers to provide larger income streams, and other injurious treatments that appeared to be driven by greed, not patient care, treating several patients with harsh — but billable — chemotherapy until they died.

Even Greg Anderson, a Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan vice president, speaking on behalf of his insurance company, came close to tears as he concluded his statement.

In September, 2014, Fata pleaded guilty to 16 out of 23 counts of fraud and other crimes. He appeared in court with his head shaved. Dressed in a black suit, a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar, and no tie, his appearance offered onlookers no clues to his state of mind.

Over 3 1/2 hours of victim statements, the once-revered oncologist and hematologist expressed no emotion, other than a flicker of attention when one enraged survivor demanded that he look at her.

Maggie Dorsey, a wife and mother of nine, used her time to describe how she could once attend her children’s basketball and baseball games, lift a bag of ice, help a 9-year-old daughter with her hair.  

She reminded federal Judge Paul D. Borman, who likely will sentence Fata this week, that “every person is a ‘we’ because each person is connected to a family,” acknowledging that after Fata’s treatment, her husband had to decide if the “marriage was still a good fit.”

Several patients said they had tried to seek second opinions, only to be told they were too sick to wait for another opinion and needed to have chemotherapy immediately. Others described layers of doctors who were unable to detect faults in treatment, in part because Fata didn't provide accurate records to their physicians.

Ellen Piligian, whose father, Dr. John Piligian, died after being treated by Fata, said her father, a pathologist, prided himself on supervising his own medical care. He had been impressed by Fata at hospital tumor board meetings and went to see him after being diagnosed with a Stage 4 tumor. Yet even he was fooled by Fata, and acquiesced with directions to continue chemotherapy after his tumor was in remission. "He preyed on our trust, exhaustion and fears," Piligian said.

The former patients spoke of Fata's deceit and betrayal, and their own surprise to discover it, mostly after Fata's arrest in 2013, when FBI agents brought several of them records.

"I trusted him and he trusted my insurance and co-payments," Dorsey, the first speaker, said softly.

Shocked by Fata's arrest on Aug. 6, 2013, Christopher Sneary, now 55, took 3,400 pages of medical records to new doctors. "They were ... amazed and shocked that I had survived Dr. Fata's gross over-treatment of a fairly easy cancer to get rid of," including 40 days of chemotherapy, iron infusions, blood transfusions, 24 steroid injections and 37 radiation treatments.

Survivors described a man who could be charming but also display a cold, manipulative personality, obstructing anyone who questioned his treatment plan. When Michelle Manarino asked him for a change in her mother's treatment, he rebuked her, asking if she had had "a fellowship at Sloan-Kettering," the New York cancer center, as he had. Her mother died in 2010, in "excruciating agony."

"I feel as if I was a participant in the Fata holocaust," Manarino said. "My mother received his ... sentence, which was death."

Marietta Crabtree read the statement offered by her deceased husband, offering statements showing that he treated Donald Crabtree for lung cancer, knowing that he probably didn't have it. Why? She believes because Fata's treatment cost $23,357 a month in Medicare billings. Later treatments, by a more ethical provider, were $3,965 a month, she said.

Every person who spoke to the court sought the maximum allowable by law, or 175 years "in a small cell," as one victim requested, sometimes remembering a physician who showed them no mercy. In a frail and trembling voice, Crabtree read aloud from her husband's statement, crafted in hospice. "It is my dying wish that Dr. Fata be imprisoned for the rest of his life."

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Laura Berman is the Detroit News Metro columnist.