This is a pretty funny story, except it isn’t really. A Southern California physician, Dr. Rolando Lodevico Atiga, got caught in a sting operation. He evidently had been under investigation for writing prescriptions for controlled substances in exchange for cold hard cash. He was said to be well known to local drug addicts who considered him “the doctor to go to.”
Undercover cops posed as patients to catch him in the act. One of them even brought x-rays with her to support her complaint of pain. Dr. Atiga took a look at them and said, “Oh yeah, I can see why you’re in pain.” He then asked the “patient” if she wanted Vicodin, oxycodone, Valium, or Xanax.
The problem for Dr. Atiga is that the X-ray was of a German Shepherd’s pelvis, complete with a view of the tail! This led Glendora Police Captain Tim Staub to remark, “Either Sparky the dog, you know, really, really, badly needs Percocet or this doctor is a petty drug dealer masquerading as a physician.” Everyone is a comedian in a story like this. As the good doctor was led out of his office in handcuffs, he proclaimed his innocence saying, “I don’t know what these charges are.”
Why on earth did this doctor have a license to practice medicine?
This story got me to wondering just who this doctor is and why was he able to practice medicine in my home state? So I looked him up on the consumer section of the Medical Board of California website. Dr. Atiga graduated from Manila Central University College of Medicine in the Philippines in 1967. He got his first California medical license in 1973.
In 1995, a complaint was filed with the Medical Board alleging that Dr. Atiga “engaged in excessive prescribing and dissemination of false billing statements.” The Board placed him on probation for four years.
By 2007, the doctor was once again engaging in shady practices, this time for soliciting $10,000 cash in return for referring beneficiaries for home health services that could be billed to Medicare. He was indicted for this crime and in December 2008, he pled guilty to a Class D Felony. His criminal sentence was 3 months in a home detention program.
He was required to report this to the Medical Board which revoked his license. The revocation, however, was stayed and he was instead placed on probation for seven years. He was suspended from practicing medicine for 15 days – that’s right, 15 days. He was also ordered to take an ethics course and to have a medical evaluation and treatment if indicated. He was supposed to choose a physician to monitor his practice and billing for the duration of his probation with the caveat that the “monitor have no prior or current business or personal relationship” with himself or his practice. He was also told he could not supervise physician assistants and that he had to “obey all laws.” The MBC’s decision was ordered to become effective on October 1, 2010.
Early signs of dementia?
Dr. Atiga had his initial medical evaluation on November 1, 2010. The examining physician, Dr. Schreiman, “noted in his report that he might have a physical condition that is affecting his competency and impairing his ability to practice medicine safely.” The basis for this note was Atiga’s “inability to follow repeated instructions, continually lying down during the examination; and his lack of memory recall during the Mini-Mental State Examination (MMSE).” Dr. Schreiman recommended that Atiga have further psychiatric testing to determine if these were early signs of dementia.
On December 7, 2010, Dr. Atiga was arrested for a Felony warrant for filing false insurance claims. A few days later, a Medical Board representative met with Dr. Atiga at his office and inquired if he had enrolled in the mandated Ethics Course. I think the irony of prescribing an Ethics Course to a repeat offender must have been lost on the MBC. Anyway, it turns out that Atiga never did take the Ethics Course although he had lots of excuses (e.g., I can’t find the information on it; it’s only on weekends and I am a 7th Day Adventist).
And he never completed his recommended psychiatric evaluation. He showed up for an initial evaluation which again suggested early dementia, but he failed to show up for the follow-up visit to validate the initial findings, this despite multiple attempts on the part of the psychiatrist to get him to do so.
Finally, on April 24, 2012, almost 18 months after the October 2010 decision to place him on probation, the Medical Board recommended revoking Dr. Atiga’s probation and revoking or suspending his Physician’s and Surgeons license. According to the consumer section of MBC’s website (accessed on 7/15/2012), the “petition to revoke probation filed. The physician has not had a hearing or been found guilty of any charges.” His license status is listed as “License Renewed and Current. Licensee meets requirements for the practice of medicine in California” What??
Is the Medical Board here to protect consumers or is it here to protect doctors?
This case raises a very fundamental question: Is the Medical Board here to protect consumers or is it here to protect doctors? This physician repeatedly crossed ethical boundaries by encouraging kickbacks, prescribing inappropriately, and billing fraudulently. Yet, he was able to maintain his license for years after the initial event. He is suspected of being in the early stages of dementia and yet he is allowed to continue to practice medicine. Something is wrong here. This doctor may have finally done himself in by getting arrested – yet again – thanks to the doggie xray. But it makes me wonder how many other Dr. Atigas are out there.
I believe practicing medicine is a privilege that you must continually earn. It is not a right based on completing medical school and an internship. With patient safety issues still plaguing our healthcare system (anyone read Maureen Down’s piece on the Boy Who Wanted to Fly?), why are we bending over backwards to let an unethical and possibly mentally impaired physician continue to practice? We need to STOP IT!