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Amid probes, LA hospital ends transplant program

LOS ANGELES -- A hospital is ending its liver transplant program after officials acknowledged in September that doctors violated national standards by giving an organ to a man who was not among the neediest patients.

Continuing investigations into the 2003 transplant, the challenges of rebuilding the program, and competitive pressures led to the decision, according to Gus Valdespino, president and chief executive of St. Vincent Medical Center, who was quoted in a report in yesterday's editions of the Los Angeles Times.

Valdespino said the federal government dealt the program a potentially crippling blow by withdrawing its certification, making it ineligible to receive Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements for liver transplants.

''The resources, the energy, the attention that would need to be devoted to restoring the program, we thought it would be detrimental and would take us away from continuing to focus on the core programs here," he said.

Doctors performed the transplant on a Saudi Arabian citizen who was number 52 on a transplant list, which covers much of Southern California and is based on who is the most ill and who has been waiting the longest. Hospital staff then falsified documents to try to cover up the action, Valdespino said.

A St. Vincent patient who was at the top of the list for a liver -- but didn't get one -- subsequently died, the Times said.

St. Vincent will continue to transplant kidneys, pancreases, and hearts, Valdespino said. The hospital, which has one of the largest transplant programs in California, has not found problems in other areas, he said. St. Vincent terminated its contracts with the two surgeons who led the liver transplant program. A lawyer for former program director Dr. Richard R. Lopez Jr. has declined to comment. An attorney for Dr. Hector Ramos, former assistant director, has said her client did nothing wrong.

The hospital also suspended two employees who allegedly helped cover up the improper transplant.

Investigations are underway by the state Department of Health Services, the federal Medicare agency, and the group that administers the national organ transplant system.

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