The arrest and criminal charges against Dallas anesthesiologist Raynaldo Rivera Ortiz Jr. (“Dr. Ortiz”) announced September 15, 2022 highlight the advisability of health care facilities and providers to use care to use appropriate monitoring and other safeguards to protect patients and other critical operations against potential retaliatory misconduct during professional peer review or other investigation or discipline of health care professionals or other members of their workforces.
Dr. Ortiz was arrested in Plano, Texas on Wednesday, September 14, 2022 and is scheduled to make his initial court appearance on Friday, September 16, 2022 on federal felony criminal charges that he caused the death of a patient and surgical emergencies of other patients by intentionally tampering with a consumer product and intentional drug alteration.
According to the by Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Brian M. Boynton, head of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, and U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas Chad E. Meacham, Dr. Ortiz was arrested and charged via criminal complaint with tampering with a consumer product causing death and intentional drug adulteration.
According the criminal complaint, on June 21, 2022, a 55-year-old female coworker of Dr. Ortiz, experienced a medical emergency and died immediately after treating herself for dehydration using an IV bag of saline taken from a Baylor Scott & White operated surgical center. An autopsy report revealed that she died from a lethal dose of bupivacaine, a nerve blocking agent that is rarely abused but is often used during the administration of anesthesia.
Two months later, on August 24, 2022, an 18-year-old male patient experienced a cardiac emergency during a routine sinus surgery. The teen was intubated and transferred to a local ICU. Chemical analysis of the fluid from a saline bag used during his surgery revealed the presence of bupivacaine, epinephrine (a stimulant), and lidocaine, drugs that could have caused the patient’s sudden symptoms.
According to the complaint, surgical center personnel concluded that the incidents involving both patients suggested a pattern of intentional adulteration of IV bags used at the surgical center.
The surgical center personnel also identified 10 additional unexpected cardiac emergencies that occurred during otherwise unremarkable surgeries between May and August 2022, which the criminal complaint alleges is an exceptionally high rate of complications over such a short period of time. According to the criminal complaint, medical personnel in each of those additional 10 cases only were able to stabilize the patient through use of emergency measures. Most of the incidents occurred during longer surgeries that used more than one IV bag, including one or more bags retrieved mid-surgery from a stainless steel bag warmer.
Surveillance video from the center’s operating room hallway allegedly also shows Dr. Ortiz placing IV bags into the stainless-steel bag warmer shortly before other doctors’ patients experienced cardiac emergencies. The complaint alleges that in one instance captured in the surveillance video, agents observed Dr. Ortiz walk quickly from an operating room to the bag warmer, place a single IV bag inside, visually scan the empty hallway, and quickly walk away. Just over an hour later, according to the complaint, a 56-year-old woman suffered a cardiac emergency during a scheduled cosmetic surgery after a bag from the warmer was used during her procedure. The complaint also states that in another instance, agents observed Dr. Ortiz exit his operating room carrying an IV bag concealed in what appeared to be a paper folder, swap the bag with another bag from the warmer, and walk away. Roughly half an hour later, a 54-year-old woman suffered a cardiac emergency during a scheduled cosmetic surgery after a bag from the warmer was used during her procedure.
According to the complaint, none of the cardiac incidents occurred during Dr. Ortiz’s surgeries, and that the series of emergencies began just two days after Dr. Oritz was notified of a disciplinary inquiry stemming from an incident during which he allegedly “deviated from the standard of care” during an anesthesia procedure when a patient experienced a medical emergency. The complaint alleges that all of the incidents occurred around the time Dr. Ortiz performed services at the facility, and no incidents occurred while Dr. Ortiz was on vacation.
The complaint further alleges that Dr. Ortiz, who had a history of disciplinary actions against him, expressed concern to other physicians over the disciplinary action at the facility and complained the center was trying to “crucify” him. A nurse who worked on one of Dr. Ortiz’s surgeries allegedly told law enforcement that Dr. Ortiz refused to use an IV bag she retrieved from the warmer, physically waving the bag off.
“Our complaint alleges this defendant surreptitiously injected heart-stopping drugs into patient IV bags, decimating the Hippocratic oath,” said U.S. Attorney Chad E. Meacham in the Department of Justice announcement of the charges. The criminal charges stemmed from these findings.
The Justice Department announcement reminds readers that a criminal complaint is merely an allegation of criminal conduct, not evidence. Dr. Ortiz is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law. If convicted, however, Dr. Ortiz faces a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Both Dr. Ortiz and the surgical facility are exposed to potential liability as a result of the alleged charges. Aside from the pending criminal charges, Dr. Ortiz also almost certainly could face potential peer review and licensing board disciplinary investigation, as well as civil lawsuits.
In addition to these liability exposures for Dr. Ortiz, the surgical facility and other providers also could face civil or potentially even criminal liability.
It seems almost inevitable that the facility and potentially some other providers might be drawn into civil lawsuits brought by affected patients and their families allegedly injured or place at risk by the alleged actions by Dr. Ortiz, as well as licensing and/or accreditation investigation arising from the alleged events.
Because Dr. Ortez’s alleged Actions constitute federal felonies, the Federal Sentencing Guidelines sentencing and organizational liability rules apply. The Sentencing Guidelines will apply to determine the sentence imposed if Dr. Ortez ultimately is convicted. In addition, the Sentencing Guidelines organizational liability provisions also raise a risk of criminal charges against the facility or other parties with knowledge or other imputed responsibility. Under the organizational guidelines, organizations can have imputedliability for the criminal acts committed by the members of their workforce. However whether criminal charges will be pursued against the organization and the level of culpability and resulting liability is determined based upon both whether the organization took appropriate steps to prevent the misconduct before it happened and the extent to which the organization acted promptly in its investigation and redress of the conduct. The apparent actions of the surgical center and its leader ship to investigate, report, and cooperate in the investigation with federal officials are likely to mitigate if not resolve their criminal exposure.
Organizations and their leaders should treat the charges against Dr. Ortiz as a reminder, at minimum carefully to credential and monitor team members including doctors or other non-employer actors working in or with their facilities, to establish appropriate safeguards to prevent and identify quickly mistakes or intentional conduct, to monitor and enforce those safeguards, and to take appropriate prompt action to investigate concerns and redress and if necessary report misconduct with the advice of counsel.
When dealing with position performance and discipline concerns, facilities typically must carefully negotiate applicable contractual and workforce issues as well as the procedural and due process requirements of applicable medical staff bylaws and federal and state peer review and discipline statutes and regulations and medical staff discipline rules.
When a medical staff member protected by peer review or other procedural safeguards commits behaviors that raise a material and continuing threat to the health and safety of patients or the public, summary suspension may be necessary. When considering or taking an action to summarily suspend a healthcare provider, however, facilities and their medical staff leaders should document both the grounds for the patient safety concerns and need for immediate action and scrupulously follow the summary suspension procedures.
Along with seeking to prevent and mitigate these legal risks, Facilities and other providers also need to consider white reporting obligations they may bear under applicable statutes, regulations and contracts.
While managing these legal risks, facilities and other involved parties also need to anticipate media and public concern about the occurrences. Facilities and their leaders should anticipate and be prepared to work in conjunction with qualified legal counsel and experienced qualified public relations experts to decide when, what, and how to communicate with the public in the media about these types of events to avoid is there a bold minefield of traps created by privacy laws, evidentiary and other legal risk management concerns, and the management of relationships with other members of the medical staff and workforce, business partners, insurance, and the public.
We hope this update is helpful. For more information about the these or other health or other legal, management or public policy developments, please contact the author Cynthia Marcotte Stamer via e-mail or via telephone at (214) 452 -8297.
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About the Author
Recognized by her peers as a Martindale-Hubble “AV-Preeminent” (Top 1%) and “Top Rated Lawyer” with special recognition LexisNexis® Martindale-Hubbell® as “LEGAL LEADER™ Texas Top Rated Lawyer” in Health Care Law and Labor and Employment Law; as among the “Best Lawyers In Dallas” for her work in the fields of “Labor & Employment,” “Tax: ERISA & Employee Benefits,” “Health Care” and “Business and Commercial Law” by D Magazine, Cynthia Marcotte Stamer is a practicing attorney board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and management consultant, author, public policy advocate and lecturer widely known for 30+ years of health industry and other management work, public policy leadership and advocacy, coaching, teachings, and publications.
A Fellow in the American College of Employee Benefit Counsel, Vice Chair of the American Bar Association (“ABA”) International Section Life Sciences and Health Committee, Past Chair of the ABA Managed Care & Insurance Interest Group, Scribe for the ABA JCEB Annual Agency Meeting with HHS-OCR, past chair of the the ABA RPTE Employee Benefits & Other Compensation Group and current co-Chair of its Welfare Benefit Committee, Ms. Stamer is most widely recognized for her decades of pragmatic, leading edge work, scholarship and thought leadership on health and managed care industry legal, public policy and operational concerns. ￼
Ms. Stamer’s work throughout her 35 plus year career has focused heavily on working with health care and managed care, health and other employee benefit plan, insurance and financial services and other public and private organizations and their technology, data, and other service providers and advisors domestically and internationally with legal and operational compliance and risk management, performance and workforce management, regulatory and public policy and other legal and operational concerns. In the course of this work, she has worked extensively on workforce and medical staff credentialing, management, investigation, peer review and discipline, and reporting and remediation of criminal or other activity to regulatory officials.
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