Heartless heart doc sticks it to patients

By James Quiggle
July 1, 2002
Why were large surgical needles and pacemakers stuck into their hearts? That’s what some patients at Chicago’s Edgewater Medical Center undoubtedly wondered. After all, they had no real chest pains or history of heart problems.

But actually, these patients did have heart problems: Dr. Andrew Cubria.

The cardiologist made a nice living performing invasive and dangerous heart operations on perfectly healthy people. It was an easy way to swindle Medicare and Medicaid out of millions of dollars by charging for worthless treatments.

Cubria performed more than 750 useless heart procedures such as angioplasties, inserting catheters, and implanting of pacemakers and stents. And taxpayers picked up the entire tab, millions of dollars worth.

But his operations were more than invasive, painful and expensive. They were also deadly; two people died from angioplasties they never needed.

Cubria preyed on society’s most vulnerable citizens — addicts, homeless people and impoverished seniors.

Recruiters were paid to prowl through homeless shelters and public housing to find patients. The patients received cash, food and cigarettes to show up at Edgewater and submit to batteries of blood tests, X-rays and ultimately deadly heart operations.

Cubria lied to some patients about the severity of their heart symptoms to convince them they needed the operations. He coached others how to fake chest pain and dizziness to justify the operations for billing purposes. He also doctored up consent forms by adding extra procedures without telling the patients.

After one person died from a needless angioplasty, Cubria falsified medical records and tried to conceal evidence that the operation was unnecessary, federal prosecutors charged.

But Cubria was more than a lone wolf operating in the shadows.

Edgewater was verging on bankruptcy a decade ago. It became a rat’s nest of billing schemes by managers anxious to save their hides by milking taxpayer-funded health insurance programs for the poor and elderly.

The 160-bed hospital actually encouraged Cubria to perform bogus operations for years.

Other Edgewater physicians also were involved in a variety of billing swindles that scammed more than $5 million in health insurance money.

One doctor, for instance, billed Medicare for thousands of nonexistent visits to patients. He claimed he treated as many as 187 patients in a single day. Edgewater also illegally bribed outside doctors nearly $300,000 to channel patients to the facility.

Edgewater’s shaky finances improved once the illegal money began pouring in. Things were looking good, but Edgewater came apart once the scandals broke. The facility finally shut down last December amid millions in losses, and most of the ringleaders were convicted.

Cubria also fell hard.

He received 12 1/2 years in federal prison in late June. He also must forfeit $2 million in profits and pay another $14.4 in restitution. No one’s likely to receive a penny, however, because Cubria claims he has no money.

Dressed in a rumpled jacket, red T-shirt and baggy blue pants, Cubria uttered an apology to the judge, but little else. “To call him reprehensible would be nice,” one prosecutor told reporters after the sentencing. “I can’t imagine worse behavior for a physician.”

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