Doctor accused of covering up transplant patient switch

A surgeon who was the director of the liver transplant program at St. Vincent Medical Center in Los Angeles was indicted recently by a federal grand jury for allegedly lying to the national organ transplant network. The U.S. Attorney's Office in the Central District of California announced that the indictment was sought after a liver accepted on behalf of one patient was instead transplanted into another patient who was significantly lower on the national wait list.

Richard R. Lopez Jr., MD, was indicted on one count of conspiracy, one count of concealment of a material fact, and six counts of falsification of records in a matter under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. If convicted of the eight counts in the indictment, Lopez faces a statutory maximum penalty of 130 years in federal prison. A call to Lopez's office seeking comment was not returned.

According to the indictment, in September 2003, St. Vincent was offered a liver for a St. Vincent patient, identified as A-H, who ranked second on the match list for that liver, but who was in his home country of Saudi Arabia. The backup patient for the liver was at another local hospital. Instead of advising the organ procurement organization that A-H was out of the country and allowing 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 identified in the indictment as A-B, who was ranked 52nd on the match list behind nine other St. Vincent patients.

After A-B received the liver, Lopez and his co-conspirators falsely told authorities at the national organ transplant network that A-H had received the liver, and later submitted a falsified pathology report on A-H's "explanted" (removed) liver, according to Steven M. Martinez, assistant director in charge of the FBI's Los Angeles field office. As a result of the false reporting, A-H was removed from the liver transplant wait list in September 2003, and was thereafter deprived of the opportunity to have this life-saving operation, according to the indictment. However, Lopez continued to tell A-H that he was on the liver transplant wait list and instructed A-H to return to the United States in April 2004, when A-H was found to be too ill to be transplanted, authorities report. He subsequently returned to Saudi Arabia, where he later died.

The indictment alleges that in reports filed until 2005 with the authorities operating the national organ transplant network, Lopez and unnamed co-conspirators continued to maintain the fiction that A-H had received the liver transplant. In 2005, the switch and cover-up were discovered by senior management at St. Vincent, and the matter was reported to authorities, the U.S. Attorney's office reports. Lopez has not been associated with St. Vincent since late 2005. The hospital has fully cooperated with federal authorities since the beginning of the investigation.

Martinez says authorities pursued the matter aggressively, because it has the potential to undermine public confidence in the organ transplant system.