The already heated race to succeed retiring Republican Sen. Don Nickles in Oklahoma became explosive two weeks ago. As polls showed GOP nominee Tom Coburn either running slightly behind or tied with his Democratic opponent, Rep. Brad Carson, stalwart conservative Coburn–a former three-term House member, and a practicing physician–was confronted with allegations that he committed medical malpractice and Medicaid fraud 14 years ago.
An article published in the online magazine Salon charged that in October 1990, Coburn sterilized a 20-year-old woman without her consent while performing emergency surgery to treat an ectopic pregnancy (a life-threatening crisis in which an embryo becomes lodged in a woman’s Fallopian tube). During the procedure, Coburn first removed the woman’s Fallopian tube containing the lodged embryo then tied off her other Fallopian tube, thus making it impossible for her to ever become pregnant again.
Strongly Rebutted Charges
Citing a Feb. 27, 1992, deposition in which Coburn said he did not report the sterilization procedure to Medicaid because Medicaid did not cover sterilizations for women under 21, the magazine concluded that Coburn “knew he was billing Medicaid illegally.”
Although opponent Carson himself would not comment on the accusations, his spokesman Brad Luna told reporters, “This is a very serious matter, and Tom Coburn will have to address questions about his past directly to the voters of Oklahoma.'”
The Associated Press reported on September 16 that Angela Plummer, who was Angela Rosson at the time of the surgery, “insisted again during an interview . . . that she hadn’t discussed the procedure with Coburn in previous visits. She said she learned she had been sterilized during a checkup after her hospitalization. ‘I was just kind of shocked,’ Plummer said. ‘It changed my life forever.'”
Strong material, all right, and coming at a time when the latest Daily Oklahoman poll shows the Senate race a dead heat (Carson 41%, Coburn 40%), it could very well prove fatal to Coburn’s campaign.
But Coburn has strongly rebutted the charges. Furthermore, the nurse who assisted Coburn in Plummer’s emergency life-saving surgery backs up Coburn’s version of events. Also, a lawsuit Plummer filed against Coburn was dismissed. It was first thrown out of state district court in Muskogee, where Coburn practiced obstetrics, for being beyond the statute of limitations. Then, after an appeals court ruled that Plummer could go ahead with the suit, she failed to do so.
“Ridiculous–and not a very nice way to repay someone who saved your life,” is how Registered Nurse Sherri Yaussy, who assisted Coburn, characterized Plummer’s accusations against the physician. In an interview from her Fort Gibson home, Yaussy recalled how Rosson came in for surgery to stop hemorrhaging during a life-threatening ruptured pregnancy.
“I specifically remember she wanted her tubes tied, and, in fact, pleaded with Dr. Coburn to perform the operation,” said Yaussy. “But in our urgency to get her to surgery, a written consent was not signed.”
The Associated Press reported on September 22 that Plummer had released the consent form she signed before the surgery and that a box on it marked “Does not apply” was checked after a statement saying, “I have been informed, both orally and in writing that as a result of the above procedure I will be permanently incapable of having children.”
Plummer’s mother , Cheryl Vick, AP has reported, testified during the brief, interrupted trial that “Plummer had previously asked Coburn to sterilize her, according to documents filed by Coburn’s attorneys that refer to trial transcripts.”
“Following surgery, I had occasion to visit the patient in her room,” Yaussy added. “She was sitting up in bed and pale. Her statement to me was one of relief that she was glad she wouldn’t be able to have any more children.”
Coburn told reporters that he had previously refused her requests for a sterilization procedure. But when she was hospitalized with an ectopic pregnancy and was bleeding internally, Coburn recalled, he agreed to her request because he feared her life was in danger.
“The fact is that she is [sic] sitting there dying with a belly full of blood,” Coburn told the Tulsa World. “Whatever I did, I’d do it exactly the same way again today. I would save the woman’s life. I would tie her tube like she asked me to do.”
Regarding the charges that he withheld required information from Medicaid and is therefore guilty of fraud, Coburn said he did, in fact, describe the surgery to Medicaid as treatment for an ectopic pregnancy. He explained that he did not describe the sterilization to Medicaid because Medicaid covered only treating the ectopic pregnancy. However, Coburn told the Tulsa World he “never billed for a tube, period . . . therefore there can’t be any Medicaid fraud.” Medicaid has never charged Coburn with fraud.
Coburn insisted that he listed the surgery he had performed in a hospital document.
A key state Medicaid official supported Coburn’s statement that he followed the proper procedure and committed no fraud. “If a physician has two reasons to do something and they bill us for one, I think that’s appropriate,” Oklahoma Health Care Authority General Counsel Howard Pallotta told the Oklahoman.
“In today’s world, every doctor and every other professional, expects to get sued at one time or another,” said Rep. Ernest Istook (R.-Okla.), who has represented patients and doctors in 15 years as a private attorney. “Those cases are tried in court rather than in the media, where too often only the most sensational side gets aired–just like we’re seeing here.”