Two Men Charged in Pelvic Mesh Removal Scheme
Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn have charged a physician and the owner of a medical consulting firm over a scheme to persuade women to have their pelvic mesh implants surgically removed to bolster the value of lawsuits against the devices’ manufacturers.
The scheme alleged in the indictment on Friday is one of the more unsavory sides of the mass tort litigation against a half-dozen manufacturers of pelvic mesh, which has led to nearly $8 billion in settlements for roughly 100,000 women.
The six-count indictment outlines a plot in which bribes and kickbacks were paid to get women from across the country referred to the doctor and others for the surgery. The procedures were paid with money from high-interest cash advances arranged by a group of so-called litigation finance firms.
Pelvic mesh, which was used to treat health issues caused by a woman’s bladder pressing against her vagina, has led to severe complications for some women, such as bleeding and pain during sex. Sales of the mesh have been halted over safety concerns.
In the Brooklyn case, prosecutors charged Dr. Christopher Walker and Wesley Blake Barber, the medical consultant, with wire fraud and violations of the federal Travel Act.
The indictment said the two men had been part of plan “to entice the victims” to undergo the surgery while “falsely and fraudulently” describing the health risks associated with pelvic mesh implants and playing down the possible complications from removal surgery.
Dr. Walker was arrested on Friday in Florida, and Mr. Barber was arrested in Dallas, said John Marzulli, a spokesman for Richard P. Donoghue, the United States attorney for the Eastern District of New York.
Fritz Scheller, a lawyer for Dr. Walker, said his client would contest the charges. A lawyer for Mr. Barber was not immediately available for comment.
Prosecutors opened the investigation last year after a report in The New York Times about a network of consultants, doctors, lawyers and financiers that recruited women with mesh implants. The women were sent to medical centers in Florida for the removal surgery without regard to whether they were having problems with the implants.
The financing firms provided cash advances with high interest rates in anticipation of a favorable personal injury settlement for the women. The indictment said some women “were responsible for the medical bills associated with the removal surgeries even if they did not receive a settlement.”
The larger settlements in the mesh litigation have gone to women who had the implant removed. Mr. Barber and Dr. Walker are accused of being involved in a network that sought to take advantage of that fact by persuading woman — some of them having only minor problems with the mesh — to have it removed in an assembly-line surgical procedure in Florida.
“The defendants and their co-conspirators exploited and defrauded women, misrepresenting health risks,” Mr. Donoghue said.
The indictment refers to complaints from three unidentified women who said they had been contacted by representatives from the finance firms and Mr. Barber’s companies, Surgical Assistance and Medical Funding Consultants, to determine whether they were interested in having the mesh removed. The charging document said the women had been unaware that Dr. Walker and others paid kickbacks and bribes to Mr. Barber’s firms for the surgical referrals.
The companies that financed the surgery were not identified by name in the indictment and were not charged with any wrongdoing. The charging document said one of the companies was based in Brooklyn and the other in Boca Raton, Fla.
A person familiar with the matter but who declined to be identified because the matter was not public said the Brooklyn finance firm was LawCash, which provides cash advances against potential legal settlements. LawCash was one of two firms mentioned in the Times article a year ago.
George Arzt, a LawCash spokesman, said the company had no comment.
When complaints about the mesh started arising about a decade ago, lawyers aggressively advertised for women who had received implants, and signed them up by the thousands to file claims against the manufacturers. But some women have complained that money being offered by manufacturers was too low given that the complications from the mesh can get worse over time.
The average settlement in the mesh litigation is less than $60,000 before legal fees are deducted.In light of the complaints, some manufacturers voluntarily stopped selling mesh implants. The Food and Drug Administration last month ordered the two companies still selling surgical mesh to treat pelvic organ prolapse to stop distributing it in the United States.