VOLUSIA COUNTY, Fla. - Eunice Murphy is one of several patients accusing a doctor of performing unnecessary spinal fusion surgeries.
Eyewitness News covering the story for months since a whistleblower lawsuit was filed against Halifax Health accusing the hospital of putting profits over patients.
The lawsuit claims the doctor was making a lot of money performing these surgeries.
Murphy, 76, says she has to walk hunched over after a spinal fusion surgery by Dr. Fredrico Vinas.
Before the surgery, she said she walked normally and was an avid tennis player.
It all started with numbness in her hand.
"He said, 'Look, if you don't get this fixed you're going to lose all your upper body strength, and you're going to be a cripple,' What can you say to that, except go ahead and do it?" Murphy said.
Murphy believes that her spinal fusion surgery left her worse off, but she can't sue because it is too late under Florida law.
"I played tennis four and five days a week. I can do nothing now," Murphy said.
She now believes she never even needed the surgery.
"It's the cruelest thing one human being can do to another. It's just cruel," Murphy said.
After Halifax's compliance department received numerous complaints, compliance official Elin Kunz investigated.
Court records say independent neurosurgeons found that patients received spinal fusions who did not need them.
Kunz filed a whistleblower lawsuit that the U.S. Justice Department later joined.
She first spoke with Eyewitness News exclusively in June.
"That's when I realized this could be criminal," Kunz said.
Kunz's attorney Marlan Wilbanks said Halifax did not notify the government or the public.
"One of the employees who worked very closely, with the neurosurgeons there used the phrase that it was like sending lambs to slaughter," Wilbanks said.
"I just went along with (it), and now I'm suffering," Kunz.
Full Statement from Halifax Health:
As you note in your email, pursuant to state and federal law, Dr. Vinas cannot comment on the medical condition or treatment of a patient without the appropriate consents and authorizations. I would note that this was conveyed to Mr. Whoriskey weeks before his article ran, yet no such consents or authorizations were received from those quoted in the article. Instead, Mr. Whoriskey relied upon the one-sided facts presented to him. We even suggested the Post insure it had been provided full and complete medical records, including radiological studies and reports, and that they have them reviewed by the appropriately trained individuals (board certified neurosurgeons), because Dr. Vinas is certain such a proper review would make clear any surgeries he performed were appropriate.
Because he cannot comment on any individual patients, you should be aware of certain aspects of Dr. Vinas’ practice that are relevant to the statements made in the article. Although neurosurgery is a relatively high risk specialty, in his 13 years of practice, Dr. Vinas has never had a malpractice action or a Board of Medicine complaint filed against him regarding the quality of care provided to his patients and no patient has ever reported or complained that Dr. Vinas pressured or coerced him or her to undergo surgery. To the contrary, Dr. Vinas is a conservative practitioner who always encourages his patients to avoid surgery and continue with non-surgical alternatives as long as possible and surgery is only performed as a last resort. Dr. Vinas sees over a thousand patients every year in his practice and only a small percentage of patients are considered for surgery. A smaller fraction undergo a spinal fusion. He has each patient exhaust non-surgical means of treatment prior to surgery and his patients are always offered the alternative of continuing with non-surgical treatment.
For example, before a patient is considered for elective spine surgery, Dr. Vinas requires every patient to have failed maximal non-surgical treatment, including extensive physical therapy with analgesics and anti-inflammatory drugs as well as procedures by an independent interventional pain specialist. Only after having exhausted these alternatives, is a patient considered for surgery. Moreover, surgery is only performed if the radiological studies correlate with the symptoms. In cases that are non-straight forward, confirmatory electrophysiological studies (i.e. EMGs) are obtained by an independent neurologist. Only cases with clear indications are considered.
The Allmed report cited in the article was based on incomplete or inaccurate information and prepared by the relator to advance her own interests. The report has been rebutted in total by experts with complete records and information including Dr. Schoettle, who has impeccable credentials, and the relator’s claim of unnecessary surgeries is not being pursued by the government. Every single qualified medical professional who has reviewed a complete record of one of Dr. Vinas’ patients has concluded his surgeries were appropriate and medically necessary. Any contention or report that suggests that Dr. Vinas performed unnecessary surgeries is patently false.
Moreover, any suggestion that a spinal fusion was performed on a patient with only carpal tunnel syndrome is absurd. Diagnostic tests are conducted prior to any spinal surgery and that just is not plausible. Mr. Whoriskey was provided the names of a select group of unhappy patients by those with a personal interest in harming Dr. Vinas and Dr. Vinas was left unable to defend himself against the specific allegations under federal and state privacy laws. This is very unfortunate and unfair given Dr. Vinas’ impeccable reputation and there being no other reliable evidence to support these false claims.
During his career, Dr. Vinas has seen over 15,000 patients with only a very small handful ever having expressed dissatisfaction with the care and treatment received. Dr. Vinas specializes in complex cases and, unfortunately, despite best efforts and excellent care being provided to all of his patients, a small percentage may not recover as well as hoped and may be dissatisfied. That in no way means the surgery was unnecessary or should not have been performed. Also, keep in mind that surgeries are reviewed by insurance carriers to determine appropriateness prior to authorization, frequently by a peer review process.
As noted in Mr. Whoriskey’s article, Dr. Vinas has authored almost one hundred publications and book chapters both nationally and internationally in addition to having authored over 100 presentations at national and international meetings in the area of spinal conditions and spinal surgery. Because of his careful approach to the treatment of his patients as outlined above, his significant expertise in the area of spine surgery, and his excellent outcomes, he is well respected by other physicians in the community with many selecting him for their own personal care or the care of family members, including those who have traveled from other regions of Florida. In addition, other spine surgeons have sent him their most difficult or problematic cases.
In sum, Dr. Vinas is certain a thorough review of any patient’s complete medical record by an appropriately trained and board certified neurosurgeon will support the appropriateness of the treatment rendered to that patient. His focus in treating his patients is, and has always been, based solely on what is in the best interest of his patients.