Whistleblower’s case alleging top surgeon at UPMC violated rules on conducting multiple surgeries settles for $8.5 Million

Pittsburgh, Pa.  February 27, 2023–In a significant win for patient safety, UPMC and James Luketich MD – the longtime chair of UPMC’s Department of Cardiothoracic Surgery – as well as UPMC’s practice group, have agreed to pay the federal government $8.5 million to settle a whistleblower lawsuit alleging fraud and risk of patient harm. UPMC is a healthcare system located in Pittsburgh, PA.

The whistleblower lawsuit was filed under the False Claims Act in 2019 by Phillips & Cohen on behalf of their client, surgeon Jonathan D’Cunha, MD, the current Chair of Cardiothoracic Surgery at Mayo Clinic, Arizona and formerly a cardiothoracic surgeon and Vice Chair of Cardiothoracic Surgery at UPMC. After investigating Dr. D’Cunha’s allegations, the United States government intervened in the central allegations of his lawsuit for falsely billing federal healthcare programs in violation of medical necessity and teaching physician requirements.

The Department of Justice alleged that Dr. Luketich regularly performed as many as three complex surgical procedures at the same time, failed to participate in the “key and critical” portions of his surgeries, and forced his patients to endure hours of medically unnecessary anesthesia time.

The government also alleged that since at least 2015, UPMC knowingly allowed Dr. Luketich, who is one of UPMC’s highest-paid employees and one of UPMC and UPP’s highest sources of revenue, to continue these practices in order to increase surgical volume, maximize UPMC revenue, and/or appease Luketich.

“Patients deserve more of their surgeon’s attention; the government demands it. Now they’ll get it,” said Jeffrey Dickstein, a whistleblower attorney, partner with Phillips & Cohen LLP, and one of the attorneys representing Dr. D’Cunha.  “Today’s settlement finally brings meaningful oversight of Dr. Luketich and UPMC.”

The Department of Justice’s complaint strongly refuted any suggestion that this lawsuit was merely a billing dispute involving confusing government regulations.  It alleged that the conduct did not involve merely technical violations of billing requirements or internal policies. Instead, the government alleged that Luketich’s surgical practices defied the standard of care, abused patients’ trust, inflated anesthesia time, increased the risk of complications to patients, and – on at least several occasions – resulted in serious harm to patients.

These practices – which the complaint alleges were well-known to many current and former UPMC executives, surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, and staff, but not to Luketich’s patients – continued until Dr. D’Cunha stepped in.  He filed a whistleblower lawsuit alerting the federal government to Dr. Luketich’s conduct — but only after his complaints to UPMC administrators and UPMC medical staff did not stop it.

“Dr. D’Cunha’s brave decision to step forward despite the personal costs he has endured in order to ensure that this conduct was addressed is exactly the kind of conduct the False Claims Act was intended to encourage and reward,” said Claire Sylvia, a Phillips & Cohen whistleblower attorney representing Dr. D’Cunha.

Dr. D’Cunha and his counsel are grateful to Assistant US Attorney Adam Fischer for his effort in reaching this settlement.

Phillips and Cohen partner Amy Easton also represented Dr. D’Cunha.  Andrew M. Stone of the Stone Law Firm in Pittsburgh served as local counsel.

A copy of the complaint.

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