1-800-Get-Thin Finally Gets Some Official Scrutiny

Editor's note: This story has been updated from an original version stating that several current or former workers were invovled in the whistle-blowers suit. Only two former workers were involved.

It took a whistleblower lawsuit and the deaths of five patients but all of a sudden everyone with a constituency seems to be outraged by the 1-800 -GET-THIN freeway billboards, bus ads and radio and TV spots that have permeated the Los Angeles market in recent years. It’s a story that the Los Angeles Times, particularly columnist Michal Hiltzik, has been pursuing for years.

In the latest news, Aetna has issued a statement revealing that the California Department of Insurance is investigating the business practices of Lap-Band surgery centers affiliated with the marketing campaign. The Lap-Band is a silicone ring that is surgically implanted around the stomach. It is made by Allergan.

Aetna says is it cooperating with the department's law enforcement branch, which has the power to make arrests and pursue criminal charges, to "investigate alleged fraud against our members by the 1-800-GET-THIN … surgery centers," Stuart Pfeifer reports in the Los Angeles Times.

Let’s get the rebuttal out of the way right here: Attorney Konrad Trope, who represents the surgery centers affiliated with the ad campaign, wrote in an email to Pfeifer: "My clients' medical facilities have been repeatedly inspected and reviewed and no wrongdoing has ever been found."

Pfeifer reported a week ago that Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) has asked for a congressional hearing “to examine whether the sponsors of the ad campaign, their affiliated clinics and the device's manufacturer are improperly promoting a potentially dangerous surgery.” Waxman sent a letter to the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, saying Congress should subpoena documents from 1-800-GET-THIN and Allergan. He questions both the “aggressive marketing" and the effectiveness of the band itself.

Allergan spokeswoman Naziah Lasi-Tejani maintained at the time that the device is safe and effective, if "inserted by an experienced and qualified bariatric surgeon who offers the patient appropriate follow-up care." She also pointed out that the surgical technique for inserting the banc had been revised.

The Food and Drug Administration sent warning letters to 1-800-GET-THIN and some of its affiliated surgery centers last month, according to UPI, “saying the ads were misleading and did not properly disclose the dangers of Lap-Band surgery.” The response of 1-800-GET-THIN was to add a disclosure on its website that says that Lap-Band procedures can result in death, according to the story. It’s not readily apparent, as might be expected. What pops at the site is “Need to lose 30 pounds or more? Let Your New Life Begin!”

That’s a huge potential market. Sixty-eight percent of Americans over 20 are either overweight (34.4%) or obese (33.9%), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Two former workers at the surgery centers affiliated with the GET-THIN campaign have filed a whistle-blower lawsuit that claims “patients are subjected to life-threatening conditions,” Hiltzik reported last week. The charges include safety code violations, labor code violations and racketeering.

The plaintiffs include brothers Julian and Michael Omidi, both of them doctors. Julian’s medical license has been revoked by the California medical board; Michael’s was under suspension for three years through last October. Their true calling, as Hiltzik puts it, has been “impressario.”

Hiltzik writes: “As I have written in the past, there can be few goods or services being hawked as aggressively to Southern Californians as lap-band surgery, that supposed weight-reduction remedy marketed by the 1-800-GET-THIN billboards, bus placards, and radio and TV ads.”

The only problem is that Hiltzik wrote that in December 2010, following a column that reported two deaths and “an allegedly life-threatening injury (plus some very interesting insurance bills).” In a deposition attached to a separate lawsuit, a surgeon who is one of the plaintiffs claims there were six or seven deaths that occurred prior to Oct. 6, 2010, when he quit working for the Omidis.

“The allegations in the whistle-blower lawsuit and in [Ihsan] Shamaan's deposition suggest that a major public health crisis has erupted in California right under the noses of the state medical board and the state Department of Public Health,” Hiltzik wrote Sunday. And, despite his yeoman efforts, they are in front of the eyeballs of millions of Angelenos who, like most of us, yearn for quick fixes for complex conditions.

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