Last summer, I told you about Farid Fata, a cancer specialist from the Detroit area who is the admitted mastermind of what may be the most outrageous health care fraud in American history. Fata subjected hundreds of people to aggressive chemotherapy regimens that they didn’t need, and stuck Medicare and private insurance companies with the bill. The 50-year-old quack pleaded guilty to his outrageous crimes in 2014, and last July was sentenced to 45 years in federal prison–at his age, effectively a life sentence.
As hideous as this story is, it’s even more hideous when you consider that Fata might very well still be at it if not for one of his patients breaking her leg. On Sunday night, NBC News’ Lester Holt interviewed that woman, along with several of Fata’s other victims, on “Dateline NBC.” Watch a preview here, and watch the full episode here.
Monica Flagg thought she got an unpleasant surprise in 2013 when Fata told her that she had multiple myeloma, a highly invasive bone marrow cancer. Flagg told NBC’s Lester Holt that Fata told her in no uncertain terms that she would need to start an aggressive chemo regimen right away, she would die. Flagg had lost a brother and a sister to cancer, so she had some idea of how hard that diagnosis could hit someone.
However, just hours after starting what she thought would be a lifetime of treatment, Flagg tripped and broke her leg in two places. A doctor at Fata’s Michigan Hematology and Oncology, Soe Maunglay, saw her in the hospital that day. Fata was on vacation in his native Lebanon. Flagg recalled that Maunglay was looking at her “very strangely.” It turned out that Maunglay had seen something way off about Flagg’s bloodwork. He later said that “just by looking at the chart,” he knew that Flagg’s numbers were not consistent with someone who had cancer.
After another day of looking at Flagg’s numbers, he concluded that Flagg did not have cancer–and that Fata had been lying to her. It turned out that Maunglay had been concerned for some time that Fata was overtreating patients. However, what he saw in Flagg was far worse–potential health care fraud. Fata’s office manager, George Karadsheh, didn’t believe him at first. However, after doing an investigation of his own, he learned Fata was giving several patients a chemo drug that was only intended for patients with certain immune problems, even though all but a few patients didn’t qualify for it. He took his suspicions to federal prosecutors, and Fata was arrested a few weeks later.
It turned out that several nurses and patients had raised concerns about Fata well before 2013. In 2010, oncology nurse Angela Swantek applied to work at Fata’s clinic, but turned down the job after seeing a number of things that anyone working with chemo would know to be “plain wrong”–no room for family members in the infusion room, drugs being administered incorrectly, and other irregularities. She said that she knew within 20 minutes that Fata was keeping patients in the chair solely to get more money from insurance.
Swantek complained to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services about what she described as “a chemo mill.” She only got a response after a year–a form letter that claimed there was no evidence of health care fraud. Had Michigan officials acted on that complaint, this monster could very well have been shut down a lot sooner.
Flagg and several other former patients regularly gather at a hotel near Fata’s former practice for support. Some of their stories are gut-wrenching. One man with a pre-cancer condition that didn’t need aggressive treatment had his immune system destroyed by seven years of unnecessary chemo, and lost both of his legs before his death. Another man almost died of heart failure. Small wonder that U. S. Attorney Barbara McQuade was in no mood for mercy when he pleaded guilty; she wanted him sentenced to 175 years in prison.
Fata was only sentenced to a fraction of that, but the sentence still ensures he will die in prison. However, he doesn’t know how lucky he got. Had he let this go to trial, he could have been deported back to Lebanon. As it stands now, he will likely die with far more dignity than his patients got–and all because of one broken leg and a fellow doctor who saw too many red flags.