Concussion doctor blasts Academy Awards for racism

The discussion about the lack of black nominees for this year’s Academy Awards dominated the ceremony Sunday night – from host Chris Rock’s opening monologue to acceptance speeches.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, left, and Will Smith at the New York photo call for Columbia Pictures “Concussion,” which opened in theaters on Christmas Day 2015.

Absent from the ceremony was black actor Will Smith, whose nuanced performance in Concussion captured the doctor who brought the issue to the forefront of the NFL and the public.

Dr. Bennet Omalu, in an interview with the Palm Beach Post in January, spoke about the lack of Academy Award black nominees.

The doctor said the issue isn’t about Smith not receiving a nod, but the fact the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences has failed for two consecutive years to nominate for a major award any black, Hispanic or Asian actor, calling the Academy “a country club of exclusivity” and a “remnant of our dark past.”

“I think it is high time to find an alternative to the Academy that will reflect modern times,” he said.

Omalu is on a mission to enlighten the public about how repeated concussions in sports causes the neurological condition CTE that brings on dementia, mental illness and other problems for pro athletes.

The Post spoke to parents  who say they wouldn’t allow their children to play football in the light of Omalu’s discovery.


First ever regulation for professional guardians on way to governor

In the wake of numerous stories of abuse throughout the state of incapacitated seniors by guardians, the Florida House sent a bill to Gov. Rick Scott to exert regulatory authority over such professionals.

By a vote of 115-2, the House passed a bill designed to create the Office of Public and Professional Guardians. For the first time, the state will have the power to investigate and discipline professional guardians.

The Legislature’s action comes in the wake of media reports about professional guardians who are more interested in draining the savings of incapacitated seniors than protecting them. Last month, The Palm Beach Post’s series Guardianship: A Broken Trust brought to public attention the role of the judiciary in exacerbating the guardianship problem.

The bill was also passed on a day when protesters marched outside of the Palm Beach County Courthouse in Delray Beach, calling for judicial reform in the wake of The Post’s guardianship stories, which led to Chief Judge Jeffrey Cobalth to transfer Circuit Judge Martin Colin, whose wife, Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt, is a guardian, to another division and to announce training and other changes.

The bill, which passed the Senate on Feb. 2, has received support from Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida State Guardianship Association.

The lawmaker behind the proposal, Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice, has referred to unethical professional guardians as “cockroaches,” saying they “prey upon the elderly.”

Sen. Nancy Detert, R-Venice. The new law comes in the wake of media reports of guardians more concerned about draining the life savings of seniors citizens than protecting them.  In January, The Palm Beach Post’s series Guardianship: A Broken Trust brought to public attention the role of the judiciary in exacerbating the guardianship problem.

Under guardianships, seniors found by the court to be unable to take care of themselves often lose all legal rights to make decisions for themselves. When a family member is not available or they can’t agree on what to do, a judge can appoint professional guardians to make decisions on finances, medical care and housing for the senior.

Anybody can become a professional guardian with such vast powers over another’s life by simply going through a credit and criminal check and 40 hours of training.

Dr. Sam Sugar, co-founder of Americans Against Abusive Probate Guardianship, hailed Detert for her determination. “We hope the momentum towards meaningful reform of the guardianship system in Florida will continue as other new champions arise in the Legislature,” he said.

The law is the second measure of guardianship reform passed by the Legislature in as many years. In 2015, a law was signed by Gov. Scott that imposed criminal penalties for exploitation or abuse of a senior in guardianship, requires more notice of emergency temporary guardianship proceedings, and makes it harder to suspend a family member’s power of attorney during the litigation process.

Fernando Gutierrez, a director of the GuardianAssociation of Pinellas County, said he said the new law focuses solely on financial abuse, not on failure of those in his industry to to properly make correct medical decisions  for the seniors in their care – including when to withdraw medical care at the end of life.

Professional guardian Fernando Gutierrez

“I was telling staff people of the senators a CNA (certified nursing assistant) has more medical training than 98 percent of the guardians out there,” he said.

Gutierrez said he has received some opposition from his fellow professional guardians for embracing reform.

“I’m sort of like the black sheep,” he said. “They think I’m trying to lessen the credibility of the guardian, but far from it. I’m speaking for the silent majority.”



Post investigation: Another blow to Judge Colin

After weeks of speculation, the chief judge confirmed that Palm Beach County Circuit Judge Martin Colin is out as coordinator of a new guardianship program to resolve family disputes.

Chief Judge Jeffrey Colbath transferred Colin from the Probate & Guardianship Division – as well as the family division – following The Palm Beach Post’s investigation into Colin. Now Colin is out as coordinator of the Eldercare Coordination Program, thus severing all ties with adult guardianship.

Judge Martin Colin presides over a hearing on Thursday, August 20, 2015 at the South County Courthouse in Delray Beach. Judge Colin's wife Elizabeth Savitt, who is a professional guardian, was simultaneously participating in a hearing in another courtroom with Attorney Sheri Hazeltine. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)
Judge Martin Colin now has no ties to adult guardianship following latest move by chief judge. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

Colin’s wife – Elizabeth “Betsy” Savitt – works as a professional guardian for incapacitated seniors and adults. The Post found numerous complaints about Savitt taking tens of thousands of dollars in fees without judicial approval, double-billing and funneling cash to suspect family members of the seniors in her care.

Her work as a guardian created what a former Florida Supreme Court justice dubbed an appearance of impropriety for Colin and conflicts for the judiciary as a whole. Colin wouldn’t hear Savitt’s cases, but did allow for years attorneys who represented his wife and referred her guardianship cases to appear before him. Colin would at times grant lucrative fees to these attorneys.

In the meantime, families said Colin’s colleagues would turn a blind eye to their complaints about Savitt – particularly Circuit Judge David French, reportedly a friend of Colin and Savitt.

Elizabeth Savitt appears at a hearing with Attorney Sheri Hazeltine to discuss attorney fees for Albert Bach on Thursday, August 20, 2015 at the South County Courthouse in Delray Beach. Elizabeth Savitt is the wife of Judge Martin Colin and also a professional guardian. (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)
Families say Colin’s fellow judges turned a blind eyes to their complaints about his wife, professional guardian Elizabeth Savitt . (Madeline Gray / The Palm Beach Post)

Besides his job as judge, Colin helped coordinate the Eldercare program,  which sought to resolve disputes among family members of seniors in guardianships. The program uses professionals – such as psychologists, lawyers and former judges – to sit down with families over a two-year span in hopes of resolving issues over money and care.

Circuit Judge Janice Brustares Keyser will now oversee the program, which is still in its infant stages but aims to save money by decreasing litigation in court. Some guardianship attorneys make thousands of dollars in fees – taken from the seniors’ accounts – by exploiting family discord, according to guardianship reform advocates.

Mayor wants to open supervised heroin injection facility

HeroinIthaca’s mayor has a unique plan to address the drug epidemic in his community: a supervised heroin injection facility.

“I have watched for 20 years this system that just doesn’t work,” Svante Myrick, 28, explained in an Associated Press interview. “We can’t wait anymore for the federal government. We have people shooting up in alleys. In bathroom stalls. And too many of them are dying.”

Myrick’s plan is to create a facility where heroin users can shoot the illegal drug with a clean needle under the supervision of a nurse, and without fear of being arrested by police. Medical staff will be available if the user should accidentally overdose, and other resources will be available if the addict wants to seek recovery treatment.

“I think for a lot of people this is going to sound like a weird concept — ‘Aren’t you just encouraging them to use drugs?'” he said. “But I think it’s more possible now than at any time in our history. The opioid epidemic is affecting more people and we know we can’t wait any longer for the federal government to do something.”

The plan faces legal hurdles in New York’s legislature, where heroin use has not been deemed a state health crisis yet. These types of facilities are already in use in Canada, Europe and Australia, according to the AP, so there is precedent for the approach.

Read more about Myrick’s background, how he came up with the idea and the opposition he faces here.

Lawsuit: HCA doctor performed unnecessary heart surgery

Nearly a decade ago, a nurse at Lawnwood Medical Center and Heart Institute in Fort Pierce came forward with a startling claim: doctors at the hospital were performing unnecessary heart surgeries to pad hospital profits.

John Austgen
John Austgen of Fort Pierce explains how an HCA doctor put in an unnecessary pacemaker, almost killing him at Lawnwood Regional Medical Center.

The nurse was told his services were no longer required, but he continued up the chain of the nation’s largest hospital chain, HCA Inc., with his complaint.

And indeed, HCA determined in 2010 that about 1,200 surgeries were performed on patients who did not have serious heart disease at Lawnwood and other Florida HCA hospitals, according to internal documents from the company obtained by The New York Times.

But the doctor that sparked nurse C.T. Tomlison’s alert to HCA never lost privileges at Lawnwood, and now a new lawsuit claims he continued to do unnecessary surgeries.

The medical negligence complaint filed this week in St. Lucie County says Dr. Abdul Shadani placed an unnecessary pacemaker in retiree John Austgen in 2013.

The severe complications that followed transformed the 73-year-old  from a senior who played tennis three times a week to a man who can barely muster enough energy to watch television.

“I went in as a well man. I came out as an old man,” he said at a news conference in West Palm Beach. “I was a runner. I’m having trouble walking.”

Austgen ended up suffering through several surgeries and a lengthy hospital stay. At one point, his heart was punctured and at another time it stopped all together and he had to be resuscitated. You can read his lawsuit by clicking here.

The hospital billed more than $400,000, Austgen’s West Palm Beach attorneys – Jason Weisser and Michael Baxter – said at a news conference on Wednesday. They said HCA doctors are still performing unnecessary surgeries for financial gain, calling it a systematic problem with the hospital chain. The lawyers say they are working on other cases similar to Austgen’s.

“Lawnwood generates 35 percent of their gross revenue just from its cardiac unit. It’s a huge revenue generator for the hospital,” Weisser said.  “I think the financial gain of the doctor and the hospital came before the patient’s care.”

Lawnwood spokeswoman Ronda Wilburn emailed a statement to The Palm Beach Post saying the hospital was aware of the lawsuit: “We dispute these allegations, and we intend to vigorously defend the suit. At Lawnwood Regional Medical Center & Heart Institute, we remain focused on providing the best possible medical care to our patients.”

Shadani’s attorney did not return an email and phone call for comment.

The nurse said he witnessed Dr. Shadani perform unnecessary surgeries back in 2008, according to the internal documents.

Austgen ended up in Shadani’s care after complaining of dizzy spells. The doctor diagnosed him with a complete “heart block” and in need of an emergency pacemaker, according to the lawsuit.

Weisser and Baxter say their research shows that there was only a minor blockage that could have been treated with medication. Austgen said he has since learned his dizziness was due to low blood pressure.

Austgen said his mother, sister and daughter are nurses and that he has respect for hospitals and doctors, but he hopes his lawsuit will keep Shadani from practicing.

The New York Times reported in 2012 that the Justice Department was investigating whether cardiologists at HCA hospitals in Florida performed unnecessary – and sometimes dangerous – procedures.

It is unknown whatever happened to that investigation but Weisser said HCA has failed to live up to its promises to address the systematic problem that was identified not only at Lawnwood, but at HCA hospitals in Tampa and Miami Beach.

HCA owns about 160 hospitals – including JFK Medical Center in Atlantis and Palms West Medical Center near Wellington.

Weisser said that the fact that Shadani was still on staff at Lawnwood one year after the New York Times article that shows that HCA never intended to stop such erroneous procedures. “Obviously, they don’t care,” the attorney said.