Skin doc’s con more than skin deep

By James Quiggle
January 12, 2009

Dr. Robert Stokes

Robert-StokesTrusting patients came to dermatologist Dr. Robert Stokes for honest advice about skin conditions. Instead, many were needlessly sliced up with his scalpel so the East Grand Rapids, Mich. skin doc could steal nearly $2 million from Medicare and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

His unsanitary habits also potentially exposed thousands of patients to HIV and hepatitis.

Stokes routinely removed lesions—often just blemishes or freckles—that didn’t need a surgeon’s knife. He scared patients into the procedures by falsely diagnosing them with cancer or precancerous conditions. On top of the unsettling surgeries and healing processes, hundreds of patients were saddled with expensive co-pays and deductibles that sometimes exceeded $500.

“He scared patients into the procedures by falsely diagnosing them with cancer.”One patient had up to 40 lesions removed, but only a handful needed removing. Stokes told another patient, Anne Gulch, that she needed 30-40 moles removed. After having five sliced off, Gulch went to another skin doc who said the moles were benign.

Larry Broomberg had several lesions removed. Stokes put just one stitch into an incision that was up to two inches long, and the stitch popped the same day. Another skin doc told Broomberg that several growths didn’t need removing. Incensed, Broomberg refused to pay the co-payment. Incredibly, Stokes sent him a $135.11 bill demanding the co-pay—after being sentenced for insurance fraud.

Yet another patient said Stokes found lesions to remove every time he came for an appointment. He stopped going to Stokes because he couldn’t afford all the surgeries when insurance wouldn’t pay the full freight.

The insurance gravy train became so profitable that Stokes grew bold enough to bill insurers for treating adult patients for impetigo—a serious skin infection that normally occurs only with children.

Stokes also used questionable sanitary practices that could’ve endangered his patients.

One staffer said Stokes may have reused the same syringe on different patients, observing that he took the same syringe from one patient to the next.

He also sterilized surgical tools with a chemical that could’ve caused allergic reactions in patients. Other skin docs don’t use the chemical for that very reason, one expert testified.

Stokes also reused the same surgical blade on different patients, contrary to standard practice, and reused sutures.

His practices were so unsanitary that the county health department issued warnings to more than 10,000 patients that they should get tested for HIV and hepatitis.

While his patients suffered under his knife, Stokes put the stolen insurance to good use. He owned a 14,000-foot mansion on a five-acre estate.

Stokes remained defiant despite the damning evidence. He never apologized or admitted to fraud, one federal prosecutor pointed out.

“I became a physician to help people. I never intended to harm my patients, and I don’t think I’ve done so,” he said at his sentencing hearing.

The court disagreed, slapping Stokes with10 1/2 years in federal prison.

But his legal troubles didn’t end there. Stokes lost his medical license, Medicare sued him for $2.4 million, he faces divorce and at least 18 malpractice suits by patients, his estate was being sold off, and he’ll lose part of his pension.

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