Washington: An Indian-American neurosurgeon has been sentenced to 5 years in US federal prison for accepting approximately $3.3 million in bribes for performing spinal surgeries.
"Lokesh S. Tantuwaya, 55, of San Diego, was sentenced by United States District Judge Josephine L. Staton, who also ordered him to forfeit his ill-gotten gains of $3.3 million," US Justice Department said in a statement.
"Despite his privileges at San Diego-area hospitals, [Tantuwaya] caused several patients to travel from Imperial County and San Diego County up to Pacific Hospital for spine surgery so that [Tantuwaya] could get his bribes," prosecutors argued in a sentencing memorandum.
Physical, mental anguish
"This resulted in numerous patient-victims enduring the physical anguish of multi-hour trips after invasive spinal surgeries, in addition [to] dealing with the mental anguish of now wondering whether they needed a surgery, whether the medical hardware drilled into their bones was legitimate hardware, and whether they should have trusted [Tantuwaya] with their lives," they added.
Tantuwaya pleaded guilty on September 1 to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services mail and wire fraud and to receive illegal payments for health care referrals.
He has been in federal custody since May 2021 after he was found to have violated the terms of his pretrial release.
From 2010 to 2013, Tantuwaya accepted money from Michael Drobot, who owned Pacific Hospital in Long Beach, in exchange for Tantuwaya performing spinal surgeries at that hospital. The bribe amount varied depending on the type of spinal surgery.
Conspiracy with doctors
"Pacific Hospital specialised in surgeries, especially spinal and orthopedic procedures. Drobot, who in 2018 was sentenced to 63 months in prison for his crimes in this scheme, conspired with doctors, chiropractors and marketers to pay kickbacks and bribes in return for the referral of thousands of patients to Pacific Hospital for spinal surgeries and other medical services paid for primarily through the California workers' compensation system," US Justice Department said.
During its final five years, the scheme resulted in the submission of more than $500 million in medical bills for spine surgeries involving kickbacks.
According to the US government, Tantuwaya entered into contracts with Drobot and Drobot-owned companies. Tantuwaya knew or deliberately was ignorant that the payments were being given to him in exchange for bringing his patient surgeries to Pacific Hospital.
In furtherance of the scheme, Tantuwaya met with Drobot and Drobot's employees. Tantuwaya deposited bribe checks into his bank accounts.
He knew the receipt of money in exchange for the referral of medical service was illegal and that he owed a fiduciary duty to his patients to not accept money in exchange for taking their surgeries to Pacific Hospital.
In total, Tantuwaya received approximately $3.3 million in illegal payments.