Dr. Kingsley R. Chin was little more than a decade out of Harvard Medical School when sales of his spine surgical implants took off.
Chin has patented more than 40 pieces of such hardware, including doughnut-shaped plastic cages, titanium screws and other products used to repair spines — generating $100 million for his company SpineFrontier, according to government officials.
Yet SpineFrontier’s success arose not from the quality of its goods, these officials say, but because it paid kickbacks to surgeons who agreed to implant the highly profitable devices in hundreds of patients.
In March 2020, the Department of Justice accused Chin and SpineFrontier of illegally funneling more than $8 million to nearly three dozen spine surgeons through “sham consulting fees” that paid them handsomely for doing little or no work. Chin had no comment on the civil suit, one of more than a dozen he has faced as a spine surgeon and businessman. Chin and SpineFrontier have yet to file a response in court.
Medical industry payments to orthopedists and neurosurgeons who operate on the spine have risen sharply, despite government accusations that some of these transactions may violate federal anti-kickback laws, drive up health care spending and put patients at risk of serious harm, a KHN investigation has found. These payments come in various forms, from royalties for helping to design implants to speakers’ fees for promoting devices at medical meetings to stock holdings in exchange for consulting work, according to government data.
Health policy experts and regulators have focused for decades on pharmaceutical companies’ payments to doctors — which research has shown can influence which drugs they prescribe. But far less is known about the impact of similar payments from device companies to surgeons. A drug can readily be stopped if deemed harmful, while surgical devices are permanently implanted in the body and often replace native bone that has been removed.
Every year, a torrent of cash and other compensation flows to these surgeons from manufacturers of hardware for spinal implants, artificial knees and hip joints — totaling more than $3.1 billion from August 2013 through the end of 2019, a KHN analysis of government data found. These bone specialists make up a quarter of U.S. doctors who have accepted at least $100,000 or more, and two-thirds of those who raked in $1 million or more, from the medical device and drug industries last year, the data shows.
“It is simply so much money that it is staggering,” said Dr. Eugene Carragee, a professor of orthopedic surgery at the Stanford University Medical Center and critic of the medical device industry’s influence. Much of the money is deemed to be compensation for consulting duties or medical research, or royalties for inventing, or fine-tuning, new surgical tools and techniques. In some cases, it pays for trips or splashy junkets or rewards surgeons for promoting products to their peers.
Device makers say the long-established practice leads to higher-quality, safer products. “Doctors help develop and refine medical devices, and they even create new devices themselves, sharing their intellectual property with companies to help save and improve patients’ lives,” said Scott Whitaker, president and CEO of AdvaMed, the medical technology industry’s trade group.
But industry whistleblowers and government investigators say all that money changing hands can corrupt medical judgment and tempt surgeons to perform unnecessary and wasteful operations. In ongoing lawsuits, patients say they have suffered life-altering injuries from screws or other spinal hardware that snapped apart or live with disabilities they blame on defective knee or hip implants. Patients alleging injuries range from seniors on Medicare to celebrities such as Olympic gold medalist Mary Lou Retton, who had surgery to replace both her hips. The gymnast sued device maker Biomet in January 2018, alleging the hip implants were defective. The suit has since been settled under confidential terms.
The case of Chin’s company, SpineFrontier, is among more than 100 federal fraud and whistleblower actions, filed or settled mostly in the past decade, that accuse implant surgeons of taking illegal compensation from device makers — from surgeon entrepreneurs like Chin to marquee names like Medtronic and Johnson & Johnson. In some cases, device makers have paid hundreds of millions of dollars in fines to wrangle out of trouble for their involvement, often without admitting any wrongdoing.
Court pleadings examined by KHN identified more than 700 surgeons who have taken money, including dozens who pocketed millions in royalties, fees or other compensation from 2013 through 2019.
The names of hundreds more surgeons were redacted in court filings or sealed by judges.
Court filings named 35 spine surgeons who used SpineFrontier’s surgical gear, some for years. At least six of those surgeons have admitted wrongdoing and paid a total of $3.3 million in penalties. Another has pleaded guilty to criminal charges. It’s illegal under federal law to accept anything of value from a device maker for using its wares, though most offenders don’t face criminal prosecution.
Chin, 57, who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and owns SpineFrontier through his investment company, declined comment about the DOJ lawsuit or the consulting agreements.
“There is a court date [for the DOJ case] as ordered by a judge,” Chin said via email. “If we get to that point the facts of the case will be litigated.”
Back Surgeries Under Scrutiny
The nation’s outlay for spine surgery to treat back pain, or to replace worn-out knees and hips, tops $20 billion a year, according to one industry report.
Taxpayers shoulder much of that cost through Medicare, the federal program for those 65 and older, and Medicaid, which caters to low-income people.
In one common spinal procedure, surgeons may replace damaged discs with an implant and screws and metal rods that hold it in place. The demand for surgery to replace worn-out knees and hips also has mushroomed as aging boomers and others seek relief from joint pain that restricts their movement.
Perhaps not surprisingly, the competition for sales of orthopedic devices is fierce: Some 250 companies proffer a dizzying array of products. Industry critics blame the Food and Drug Administration, which allows manufacturers to roll out new hardware that is substantially equivalent to what already is sold — though it often is marketed as more durable, or otherwise better for patients.
“The money is just phenomenal for this medical hardware,” said Dr. James Rickert, a spine surgeon and head of the Society for Patient Centered Orthopedics, an advocacy group. He said most of the products are “essentially the same,” adding: “These are not technical instruments; [it’s often] just a screw.”
Hospitals can end up charging patients $20,000 or more for the materials, though they pay much less for them. Spine surgeons — who make upward of $500,000 a year — bill separately and may charge $8,000 to $20,000 for major procedures.
Which equipment hospitals choose may fall to the preference of surgeons, who are wooed by manufacturing sales reps possibly present in the operating room.
And it doesn’t stop there. Whistleblower cases filed under the federal False Claims Act allege a startling array of schemes to influence surgeons, including compensating them for joining a medical society created and financed by a device company. In other cases, companies bought billboard space or other advertising to promote medical practitioners, hired surgeons’ relatives, paid for hunting trips — even mailed checks to their homes.
Orthopedic and neurosurgeons collected more than half a billion dollars in industry consulting fees from 2013 through 2019, federal payment records show.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/08Brz
These gigs are legal so long as they involve professional work done at fair market value. But they have drawn fire as far back as 2007, when four manufacturers that dominated the hip and knee implant market, including a J&J division, agreed to pay $311 million to settle charges of violating anti-kickback laws through their consulting deals.
KHN found at least 20 whistleblower suits, some settled, others pending, that have since accused device makers of camouflaging kickbacks as consulting work, including paying doctors to sit on suspect “advisory boards” or other activities that entailed little work to justify the fees.
In November 2019, device maker Life Spine and two of its executives admitted to paying consulting fees to induce dozens of surgeons to use Life Spine’s implants in the operating room. In all, 21 of the top 30 Life Spine adopters were paid and they accounted for about half its total device sales, according to the Justice Department. Life Spine and the executives paid a total of $6 million in penalties. The company did not respond to requests for comment.
Similarly, SpineFrontier received “the vast majority” of its sales, more than $100 million worth, from surgeons who were compensated, the Justice Department alleges. Often, they were paid by way of a “sham” company run by Chin’s wife, Vanessa, from a mail drop in Fort Lauderdale, according to the Justice Department. Vanessa Dudley Chin, a defendant in the DOJ civil case, had no comment.
Kingsley Chin told KHN via email that he takes no salary from SpineFrontier, based in Malden, Massachusetts. In 2013, Chin received $4.3 million in income from the company, according to court filings in a divorce case in Philadelphia from an earlier marriage. In 2018, SpineFrontier valued Chin’s interest in the company at $75 million, according to government records, though its current worth is unclear.
SpineFrontier’s management thought paying doctors was “the only reliable way to steadily increase its market share and stave off competition,” Charles Birchall, a former business associate of Chin’s, alleged in a whistleblower complaint. The case is one of two whistleblower suits filed against SpineFrontier that the DOJ has joined and consolidated. Chin has yet to file a response in court.
From March 2013 through December 2018, the company offered some surgeons $500 or more an hour for “consulting,” which could include the time they spent operating on patients — even though they already were being paid by Medicare or other health insurers. Other surgeons were paid repeatedly to “evaluate” the same products, though their feedback was “often minimal or nonexistent,” according to the DOJ complaint.
Patient Injuries Pile Up
While the payments have piled up for doctors, so have injuries for patients, according to lawsuits against device makers and whistleblower testimony.
Orthopedic surgeon-turned-whistleblower Dr. Manuel Fuentes is suing his former employer, Florida device maker Exactech, alleging it offered “phony” consulting deals to surgeons who had complained about alarming defects in one of its knee implants.
This article was originally published in Kaiser Health News.