A Michigan doctor pleaded guilty in two federal criminal cases Friday. Neurosurgeon Dr. Aria Sabit acknowledged that his participation in a physician-owned device distributorship led him to perform medically unnecessary spine surgeries, according to the Department of Justice.
Sabit pleaded guilty to four counts of healthcare fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud and one count of unlawful distribution of a controlled substance.
Tim Lessing, an attorney for Sabit, said Friday that the doctor accepts responsibility for billing Medicare for implanting one type of hardware, when he actually implanted another.
“Certainly, Dr. Sabit has accepted responsibility for performing those surgeries and whatever the harm was to the individuals as a result of that surgery,” Lessing said.
Lessing said, however, that the original indictment incorrectly alleged that Sabit performed surgeries to use implant devices and then failed to implant anything.
Sabit admitted Friday that he persuaded patients to undergo spinal fusion surgeries with instrumentation, but actually implanted cortical bone dowels instead of instrumentation. He then falsely billed public and private healthcare benefit programs for instrumentation, according to the Department of Justice.
He also said that he agreed to convince a California hospital where he worked at the time to buy spinal implant devices from Apex Medical Technologies, a physician-owned distributorship (POD).
Apex paid neurosurgeons “lucrative illegal kickbacks tied directly to the volume and complexity of the surgeries that the surgeons performed, and the number of Apex spinal implant devices the surgeons used in their spine surgeries,” according to the DOJ.
An attempt to reach Apex late Friday was unsuccessful.
Sabit admitted that his involvement with Apex led him to compromise his medical judgment and harm patients by performing medically unnecessary spine surgeries. He also said the money he earned from Apex motivated him to occasionally refer patients for spine surgery when they did not need it. Sabit further admitted to referring patients for more complex surgeries than they actually required, and used more devices than necessary to treat patients, according to the Department of Justice.
The HHS' Office of the Inspector General issued a fraud alert in 2013 saying that PODs create “a strong potential for improper inducements” between the distributorships, physician-investors and the healthcare providers that purchase medical devices.
Proponents of PODs, however, say they lower costs by eliminating some of the expenses of device sales and also allow doctors who invest in them to collaborate with manufacturers, increasing innovation. Detractors say some PODs are increasing healthcare costs by charging above-average rates for implants, and PODs may be encouraging physician-investors to perform more surgeries, including medically unnecessary ones.
Sabit is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 15.