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Overly complex surgeries alleged in lawsuits against former UPMC surgeon

David Atteberry is among about a dozen doctors named in a whistleblower lawsuit that was filed against hospital giant UPMC in 2012 over fraudulent billing practices.

But the former UPMC neurosurgeon has had other legal problems in recent years, mirroring the wrongdoing alleged in the three-count civil lawsuit that was filed in U.S. District Court and unsealed July 25. The hospital giant settled some of the whistleblower claims by agreeing to pay $2.5 million to the Justice Department without admitting liability while three former UPMC employees continue to pursue the case without help from the U.S. Attorney.

However, in separate civil lawsuits, Dr. Atteberry was alleged to have performed more complicated surgery on a Venango County woman than was necessary, resulting in permanent paralysis, and doing neck surgery on a Westmoreland County woman “because he could make substantially more money” than if more conservative, lower cost treatment had been done instead, according to medical malpractice lawsuits filed in the Allegheny County Court of Common Pleas. Doing unnecessarily complex procedures on patients with neck and back pain between 2006 and 2015 was among the allegations contained in the whistleblower lawsuit against UPMC, which was filed by surgeon J. William Bookwalter, retired neurologist Robert Sclabassi and surgical technician Anna Mitina.

UPMC spokesman Paul Wood declined to comment on Dr. Atteberry’s tenure in Pittsburgh.

Medicare and other insurers pay for medical care based on the complexity of the procedure, so the more complicated the operation, the higher the reimbursement. Higher reimbursement helped UPMC’s bottom line while allowing its neurosurgeons to collect bonus pay totaling hundreds of thousands dollars per year, according to the pending whistleblower lawsuit.

The arrangement also exposed patients to increased risk of complications like those spelled out in the two malpractice lawsuits against Dr. Atteberry. Dr. Atteberry, who left UPMC in 2010 for a community hospital system in Washington state, did not return calls Friday.

At UPMC, doctors were paid according to their workload, measured in units, plus bonuses for exceeding certain unit thresholds, according to the lawsuit. In the whistleblower case, Dr. Atteberry was among five UPMC neurosurgeons who were accused of inflating the number of procedures performed by having lesser trained medical professionals do the work while the neurosurgeons claimed the work credit and higher earnings.

But Dr. Atteberry’s legal troubles began when Cranberry, Pa. resident Carolyn Benson sought help for back pain in June, 2009. After an evaluation, Dr. Atteberry recommended the removal of two discs in her spine, according to the lawsuit, which she was told could be done at “low risk.”

Ms. Benson was admitted to UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in August, 2009, but early into the operation things went awry. She awoke from the anesthetic as a permanent paraplegic, according to the lawsuit, which was settled for an undisclosed sum out of court.

Among the lawsuit’s claims was that Dr. Atteberry chose complex inpatient surgery for a disc that was only minimally herniated, the complaint alleged.

Dr. Atteberry’s problems didn’t end with his departure from Pittsburgh. Dr. Atteberry, a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, is now head of the neurosciences department at the Sunnyside Community Hospital & Clinics in Sunnyside, Washington.

In January 2014, the state medical commission charged him with unprofessional conduct after allegedly operating on the wrong vertebrae in a patient’s back, according to the Washington State Department of Health. He was also sanctioned for keeping notes and records that misstated the location of the bone in the spine where he operated.

Carol Hoadwonic, a retired Monroeville beauty shop owner, wasn’t surprised to hear about Dr. Atteberry’s problems with the Washington authorities. The North Huntingdon resident saw Dr. Atteberry for chronic back pain in 2009 after more conservative measures such as pain relievers weren’t helping and he recommended surgery that would make her feel “good as new,” according to the lawsuit.

But Mrs. Hoadwonic, who is 72, said Dr. Atteberry told her that surgery was needed on her neck, which came as a surprise. She had no problems with her neck, Mrs. Hoadwonic said she told him. Dr. Atteberry insisted, telling her “no, we have to start at the top.”

The result of the operation: neck pain that made her wail for relief when the anesthesia wore off and the sudden inability to fully use her left arm. She receives regular injections at a pain clinic.

Dr. Atteberry recommended surgery “because he could make substantially more money” by performing the surgery rather than more conservative and lower cost treatments, according to Mrs. Hoadwonic’s lawsuit, which was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. The claim echoes one made in the 2012 whistleblower’s lawsuit against other UPMC neurosurgeons.

“The pain — I can’t even explain it,” said Mrs. Hoadwonic, the mother of two children. “All I did was scream. It’s never gone.”

“He totally destroyed something that was totally OK,” she said. “The rest of my life.”

Kris B., or 412-263-1699

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