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Doctor blows the whistle on Lasik eye surgery chain
an ABC Action News report 11/10/03

TAMPA - The Lasik Vision Institute, also known as LVI, offers rock-bottom rates on laser eye surgery. But when some patients came forward with serious medical problems, ABC Action News began investigating. What senior investigator Mike Mason found will open your eyes like no other investigation he's done.

Judy Sanders had Lasik surgery last year at the Lasik Vision Institute on Fowler Avenue in Tampa.

"I said, 'What's that smell?' Burning, it smelled like hair burning; it was my eyelashes," she recalled. "It was very painful, extremely painful."

She went back to LVI for a second surgery; it didn't help.

Judy is a nursing supervisor at a hospital emergency room. She has to keep a close eye on her patients, but now she has a hard time staying focused as her vision has gotten worse.

Judy is not alone. Six patients all had their surgeries done on the same day at LVI, and every one of them got a terrible eye infection.

Back in July, Mike Mason tracked down the company's president, Marco Musa, at the company's south Florida headquarters. Musa never answered Mike's questions about the infections.

"If you have a group of people who had an infection on the same day, that is a terrible thing," Mike observed.

Back in July, Marco Musa spouted sales pitches instead of answering questions.
"Well, I am glad I was able to answer all of your questions and again all I can say is what's important to the public out there is the fact that the Lasik Vision Institute offers the very best service, the most qualified surgeons, and the overall very lowest price in the entire nation," Musa replied.

Action News did hear from LVI's attorney. Back in July, he blamed the infections on an airborne virus in the surgery room. But a few months later, that attorney changed his story, claiming the problems all six patients experienced were instead the result of a non-infectious ailment.

"Well, all I can tell you is, from my experience, from our research, and everyone we've talked to, is that LVI offers the very most experienced surgeons," Marco Musa insisted.

But Dr. Thomas Teather might disagree. He was LVI's national medical director until last year. He left in disgust, and now he's exposing the company's practices.

"I had continuous heated discussions over it with the management and I lost a lot of sleep over it," Dr. Teather recalled.

Teather says LVI tried to make money by selling medical products to patients who did not need them.

Dr. Thomas Teather quit working at LVI out of concerns over fraudulent and egregious practices.
It happened to Judy Sanders. LVI wanted to sell her punctal plugs.

Such plugs are normally only prescribed to patients who develop dry eyes after surgery, but Judy got the sales pitch even before she had Lasik, and not from her surgeon, either. A salesperson with no medical background said she needed them.

"They said they don't guarantee anything unless you have those put in, but I didn't want them," Judy said.

LVI claims only a doctor makes the decision to insert punctal plugs, and if a patient is offered them by a salesperson, but later does not need them, the plugs won't be inserted.

But Dr. Teather was so concerned about the sale of punctal plugs, he wrote a memo to LVI officials last year, warning them "the pre-operative insertion of punctal plugs in persons with normal eyes is fraudulent," and operating on patients who have the plugs could cause infections like bacterial keratitis.

Teather also wrote that a "national sales program designed to promote the preoperative insertion of punctal plugs would be egregious."

But LVI officials ignored Dr. Teather's warnings and went ahead with a national contest. The incentive was a $500 bonus for selling punctal plugs to 50 percent or more of all patients having surgery.

"There was significant pressures placed on patient counselors and technicians to sell punctal plugs to everybody," Dr. Teather told Mike Mason.

Mike showed the memos to Dr. Wayne Bizer, a Lasik surgeon and spokesman for the American Academy of Ophthalmology.


Mike Mason's previous reports involving the Lasik Vision Institute:

7/21/03: Action News investigates Lasik Vision Institute after complaints

7/22/03: Trying to get LVI's advertised rates for Lasik? Good luck

7/23/03: Action News exposes Lasik Institute president's lavish lifestyle

8/05/03: Class action lawsuit filed by injured Lasik eye surgery patients

"I think anyone would look at that and say that that's disadvantageous to the patient, that's self-serving to the institution, in my humble opinion. And I think -- I'm not an expert, I'm not a lawyer -- but I think it's a violation of Florida law," Dr. Bizer said.

Dr. Bizer may be right. The state attorney general is now investigating whether LVI's sales practices amount to racketeering.

"We're looking into possible RICO situations," Attorney General Charlie Crist confirmed.

Despite what the attorney general said, LVI's attorney said he doesn't believe the state really is conducting an investigation.

When Mike went back to LVI's headquarters to get their response to the latest allegations, he didn't get a very warm reception.

The Musas never came out to answer Mike's questions; instead, they called the cops. Police gave Mike a warning for trespassing, and even took his fingerprints.

But LVI and the Musas could soon get the same treatment.

"We have reopened an investigation into this case, again thanks to your hard work and a lot of people coming forward, frankly," Crist continued.

Still, a criminal investigation can't reverse the damage done to victims like Judy Sanders.

"I didn't gain anything by it. I lost and lost and lost," she lamented.

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