Unnecessary spine cases spur class action lawsuit

Carly Behm -  

A class action lawsuit alleges two former neurosurgeons from Renton-based Providence Health & Services Washington harmed hundreds of patients through unnecessary cases.

Daniel Elskens, DO, Jason Dreyer, DO, and Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla, Wash., are all named as defendants in a complaint filed May 13 in the Superior Court of King County. 

The alleged unnecessary procedures included spinal fusions that left patients with permanent damage. 

A 59-year-old woman saw Dr. Elskens for lower back pain but was recommended for neck surgery. The April 2016 procedure damaged her vocal cords, and she currently cannot speak. Dr. Dreyer in 2017 did an additional spinal fusion that resulted in additional damage, the lawsuit said. Another patient went to Dr. Dreyer for lower back pain and was also recommended for cervical surgery instead, after which he was left unable to work, the lawsuit said. Later, Dr. Dryer performed lumbar surgery on the same patient that allegedly left him with permanent nerve damage. 

A 60-year-old woman and her husband are also represented in the lawsuit. Dr. Dreyer operated on the woman in 2015 for neck soreness but allegedly didn't recommend non-surgical options first. A series of spine surgeries in the following years allegedly led to permanent damage, the lawsuit said.

Providence in April agreed to pay $22.7 million to resolve allegations that it defrauded federal healthcare programs with the unnecessary spine surgeries. 

Four Washington residents are named as plaintiffs in the class action lawsuit, but more patients are expected to join the suit, attorney Bill Gilbert told Becker's. He said in a May 27 phone call that he has spoken with other spine patients who were allegedly injured by unnecessary procedures.

"This is just senseless," Mr. Gilbert said. "It's just greed. … That's such a huge betrayal. We're taught to trust our doctors, and we should be able to trust [them]."

A spokesperson for Providence said the two surgeons were placed on leave and left the health system in 2017 and 2018. 

"Although the events in question occurred at one Providence hospital in the southeast region of Washington state, we initiated a broad and comprehensive internal review of our policies, practices and procedures to ensure robust compliance with government requirements and the delivery of high-quality care," the spokesperson said in a May 27 email to Becker's. "This unfortunate episode has reinforced our commitment to continuous quality improvement and highlighted the importance of our mission."

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