The story so far
Updates on a few big Las Vegas stories you might’ve lost track of
Thu, Aug 27, 2009 (midnight)
Headline: UMC closes oncology unit
What it is: UMC announced last November it would close its outpatient oncology unit, spurred primarily by a 5 percent cut in state Medicaid reimbursements. Nearly 300 patients were affected.
Last big development you might remember: In May, UMC announced a renewed partnership with the Nevada Cancer Institute, in which outpatient oncology services would once again be offered at UMC, beginning in 2010. A $3 million donation from the Lincy Foundation will renovate the facility, and the ongoing program will be funded by revenue generated from the addition of radiation oncology.
Where it stands now: Hundreds of cancer patients who were receiving care at UMC had to find other services. Oncologist Dr. Nick Spirtos converted a storage space in the Women’s Cancer Center at a cost of $100,000 to provide service to those who could not afford it. Relying on donations and whatever is deposited in “Cash for Chemotherapy” boxes around the Valley, Spirtos’ effort provides care for 200 of those displaced from the UMC program, and is losing an average of $8,000 a month.
But Spirtos said the unit will continue “because they’re our patients, point blank. My partners and I have cared for these ladies for five years. Everyone’s all in this together. You do your part when it’s time to do that. If the government would provide the same incentives they do for every other industry, i.e., let us have a tax deduction for all the free health care we provide, more hospitals would stand up and do this in a minute. No question about it.”
Likely future: It will likely be a rough 2009 for many patients who have no insurance and urgent medical needs, but with the program poised to go back online in 2010, and professionals such as Spirtos sacrificing in the meantime, there is hope on the horizon.
One local cancer patient, Helen Sharp, who called the UMC closure “a death sentence” in a 60 Minutes piece, learned in July that her lymphoma is in remission, but she will still need monitoring to make sure it hasn’t become active again. She’s grateful the UMC center is being reopened, but says no one should have to go through what she did. Prior to the news about her remission, Sharp went through a series of complications from chemotherapy, including sepsis and secondary infection, as well as blood clots and seizures. She was in intensive care at UMC from March to April, but had to be readmitted to St. Rose Dominican Hospital twice. Unfortunately, while the hospital accepted Clark County Social Services, the doctors did not, and Sharp is now buried in tens of thousands of dollars in debt. “I’m going to have to declare bankruptcy,” she says.
Sharp is currently getting help from Dr. Xiantuo Wu at the Nevada Cancer Centers, with the bills being paid for by Clark County Social Services. “It took me five months to find someone who would take care of me [after the UMC closure],” Sharp says. “And I can’t get Medicare because I’m too young.” Sharp is 63.
Headline: Buffalo Jim Barrier found dead
What it is: Barrier, a larger-than-life Las Vegas fixture who owned and operated an auto-repair shop, was found dead on April 6, 2008, in a motel room of an apparent drug overdose. Rumors swirled that he had been murdered, and that Rick Rizzolo, a nightclub owner whom Barrier had been publicly feuding with, was involved.
Last big development you might remember: In July, toxicology reports indicated the presence of cocaine in Barrier’s system. Despite pleas from Barrier’s family that police dig deeper, the death was ruled accidental, with cardiomyopathy cited as the cause of death. The case was officially closed.
Where it stands now: Barrier’s 25-year-old daughter, Jennifer, has launched a one-woman crusade to get the case reopened and to have her father’s body exhumed so testing can be done on his hair. “He was not a drug user, and the hair test could prove that,” she says. She has made hundreds of calls to Metro, and has appeared numerous times on Heidi Harris’ local radio show. She also updates her MySpace and Facebook pages regularly with any new information she obtains.
Barrier works as an aesthetician in Seattle but visits Las Vegas regularly to continue her pleas to Metro. In addition to the financial toll her crusade has taken—“I had $80,000 in the bank last year, and now I have nothing”—Barrier has pushed the rest of her family away because of the many death threats she says she’s received.
“It’s been overwhelming, to say the least, but I want something done. Period.”
Likely future: Regardless of the outcome of her efforts, Barrier is writing a book about her father and what she feels was a botched investigation, “because there’s no other way I can get closure.”
Headline: Judge Elizabeth Halverson removed from bench
What it is: Last August, the Nevada Commission on Judicial Discipline held hearings and found Halverson guilty on several counts, including sleeping while presiding over cases, improperly contacting jurors, mistreatment of staff and improperly hiring two bodyguards. The order permanently removing her from the bench was issued in November.
Last big development you might remember: In the midst of everything, Halverson’s husband, Edward Lee Halverson, attacked her with a frying pan on September 4, 2008, causing severe injuries. He was sentenced to three to 10 years in prison in January.
Where it stands now: Halverson’s former assistant, Ileen Spoor, filed a defamation lawsuit for comments Halverson made following her termination. That case is pending.
Likely future: Halverson still lives in Las Vegas, but multiple attempts to contact her were unsuccessful.
Headline: Medical Mafia trial ends in hung jury
What it is: A legal quagmire with no end in sight. The “mafia” in question is a group of lawyers and doctors who allegedly conspired to have accident victims undergo unnecessary surgeries to allow for enormous insurance settlements, with everyone involved getting a piece of the action. At the center of all this is “medical consultant” Howard Awand, who supposedly put the accident victims in touch with lawyers and doctors.
Last year’s trial involved attorney Noel Gage. He represented former Olympian Melodie Simon, who became paralyzed from the waist down following a vertebrae surgery by one of the doctors allegedly involved in the “mafia.” Gage allegedly agreed not to sue the surgeons involved in exchange for case referrals from Awand, and settled the case for $2 million, even though it was potentially worth $10 million.
Gage’s trial ended in a hung jury. A retrial was set for Gage, but the judge threw it out in June 2008 when one of the other doctors involved, Mark Kabins, refused to testify. The government is appealing that dismissal.
Last big development you might remember: This March, a federal grand jury indicted Kabins on eight counts of conspiracy and fraud relating to Simon’s case. He has pleaded not guilty, and the case is pending.
Where it stands now: The FBI has worked this case for five years and has three indictments to show for it (Awand, Gage and Kabins), but no guilty verdicts. All doctors and lawyers associated with the case continue to assert their innocence.
Likely future: The two doctors in the case who asked for immunity in exchange for their testimony, John Thalgott and Benjamin Venger, have uncertain futures, but it’s likely their lives have been changed forever. Venger was sanctioned by the Nevada Medical Board and given a year and a half of probation and 800 hours of community service. Thalgott is currently being investigated by the board.
Headline: Thousands possibly infected in endoscopy-center scare
What it is: In January 2008, the Southern Nevada Health District discovered unsafe practices at the Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, including reusing syringes. In what was, at the time, the largest notification of its kind in the country’s history, the district sent out notices in February to 40,000 patients that anyone who had procedures from March 2004 to January 2008 should get tested for hepatitis C and HIV. The man at the heart of the investigations is center owner Dipak Desai.
Last big development you might remember: The three clinics run by Desai, Endoscopy Center of Southern Nevada, the Gastroenterology Center of Nevada and the Desert Shadow Endoscopy Center, filed for bankruptcy on July 17, threatening to delay all the pending legal action against Desai. There are at least 10 trials scheduled to start soon, and patients’ lawyers had a hearing set for August 26 to request the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to allow the trials to proceed.
Where it stands now: The Southern Nevada Health District has linked at least nine cases of hepatitis C to Desai’s clinics, with an additional 105 cases possibly related.
Likely future: Unless the court rules in the plaintiffs’ favor, this looks to be tied up in legal red tape for the foreseeable future.
Headline: Man uses chain saw, gun in slaying of two
What it is: In what was one of the more savage crimes of the year, on November 3, 2008, William John Keck allegedly used a chain saw to cut through the door at the home of his estranged wife, Angelique Keck, and then fired shots through the hole in the door, killing her boyfriend, Jonathan Leslie, as well as the fetus Angelique was carrying. Angelique was critically injured in the attack. Keck was charged with murder, manslaughter, attempted murder and battery.
Last big development you might remember: Keck entered a plea of not guilty on May 7. Under a new manslaughter law protecting unborn children, a judge ruled that Keck would face trial for both deaths.
Where it stands now: The District Attorney is seeking the death penalty. Keck’s trial is scheduled for April 5, 2010.