(CN) – A Los Angeles surgeon who led the liver transplant program at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles was indicted by a federal grand jury Wednesday on charges he authorized a liver transplant for the wrong patient, then falsified records to try to conceal the mistake.
Seven of the eight counts in the indictment accuse Dr. Richard R. Lopez Jr. of conspiracy, concealment and falsification of records.
According to the indictment, in September 2003, St. Vincent was offered a liver for a St. Vincent patient who ranked 2nd on the match list but who was in his home country of Saudi Arabia. The backup patient for the liver was at another local hospital.
Rather than advise the organ procurement organization of the intended switch and allow the organ to be offered to the backup patient, Lopez approved acceptance of the liver and its transplantation into a patient at St. Vincent – a patient who ranked 52nd on the match list, behind 9 other St. Vincent patients, according to the indictment.
After the patient received her liver, prosecutors say, Lopez and his co-conspirators told authorities at the National Organ Transplant Network that the Saudi Arabian patient had received the liver transplant.
Lopez then allegedly falsified a pathology report on the Saudi Arabian man’s “explanted” (removed) liver, and the man was taken off the transplant waiting list. Rather than tell the patient he was no longer eligible for a life-saving transplant, Lopez allegedly urged him to return from Saudi Arabia to receive the transplant. The extremely ill man did return to Los Angeles, in 2004, but did not receive a liver; he went back to Saudi Arabia and died, prosecutors say.
“In violating federal organ transplant rules and then taking steps to cover up his actions, Dr. Lopez exposed the public to substantial risk,” said Glenn Ferry, special agent in charge or the Los Angeles Region of the Office of Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services. “This case sends a strong message that doctors must follow the rules in place to protect patients.”
The switch and cover-up were discovered by senior management at St. Vincent in 2005, and they reported it to authorities, the Department of Justice said in a statement. Since then, Lopez has not been affiliated with St. Vincent, prosecutors say.
“The significance of this indictment cannot be overstated in that this type of criminal activity affects the public’s trust in the organ transplant process, one in which organs are distributed in a fair and equitable manner,” said Steven Martinez, Assistant Director in Charge of the FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office.
Seven of the eight counts involve false reporting of the recipient of the liver offered for the Saudi Arabian patient. The last count involves another incident in which a liver was switched to a different recipient and, after the transplant, Lopez allegedly misrepresented the circumstances of the switch.
Lopez is scheduled to make his initial court appearance in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles on Jan. 25. If convicted of all eight counts, he faces a maximum penalty of 130 years in federal prison.