Ellen Murray had long thought Sarasota dermatologist Michael A. Rosin seemed a little too eager to do skin cancer surgery on her. But it was only after discovering Rosin had falsely diagnosed a benign spot as cancer that she shared her suspicions with Rosin's office manager, Carolyn Ferrara.
In 2004, the two Sarasota women filed a whistle-blower lawsuit that led to Rosin's conviction for unnecessarily cutting on dozens of elderly patients and fraudulently billing Medicare. Now, for their help in sending him to prison for 22 years, the U.S. Justice Department has awarded Murray and Ferrara $1-million of the restitution that Rosin has paid so far.
Each woman is getting about $350,000 before taxes, with a law firm sharing in the award. But Murray, a retired IBM executive, says money was not the object.
"For me, it was to have him prosecuted so that he would never do it to anybody else again,'' she said.
Rosin operated on her seven times for skin lesions that experts later determined were not malignant.
But the money couldn't come at a better time for Ferrara, 60, who has struggled to find work with other doctors because of her role in exposing Rosin. Unemployed for months, she was about to lose her car and house.
"Carolyn had worked for Rosin a number of years, and by coming forward she basically put herself out of a job,'' said attorney Kevin Darken, who handled the women's lawsuit for the Tampa firm of Cohen, Jayson & Foster.
As detailed in a 2005 St. Petersburg Times story, Rosin performed so many skin cancer surgeries "that the sheer quantity … suggests many of them were medically unnecessary,'' court records showed. At least 13 patients underwent surgery 20 or more times; one patient was operated on 122 times.
"My father and mother finally just stopped going to him — they weren't going to have a face left,'' one woman said.
At the time, Rosin was one of only two doctors in Sarasota who did Mohs surgery, a procedure in which layers of tissue are removed until all of the cancer is gone. He typically removed four layers; since Medicare paid by the layer, the more layers he removed, the more money he got.
In some cases, Rosin diagnosed cancer without even looking at tissue samples. In others, he based his diagnoses on what turned out to be bubble gum or bits of Styrofoam that suspicious employees put there to test him.
After her own misdiagnosis, Murray, 69, complained to Florida's Department of Health and the federal Medicare fraud unit, but they took no action. That's when she and Ferrara decided to sue Rosin under the federal False Claims Act, which offers a financial incentive for providing information about anyone suspected of cheating the government.
Within a few weeks after the suit's filing, federal agents raided Rosin's office. He was indicted in 2005 and convicted a year later by a Tampa jury on 35 counts of Medicare fraud and 35 counts of making false statements. At sentencing, a federal judge ordered him to pay restitution that to date has amounted to $6.8-million.
Since 1986 the federal government has recovered more than $21-billion under the False Claims Act, with whistle-blowers getting more than $1-billion in settlements ranging from 15 percent to 30 percent of the recovery. The largest award to an individual whistle-blower was $80-million in a case involving HCA, the nation's biggest for-profit hospital chain.
The Murray-Ferrara suit resulted in "a spectacular success for the government,'' said Darken, their attorney. "No. 1, someone who was ripping off the Medicare system was stopped. No. 2, somebody who was telling old people they had cancer and was cutting on them for money was put in prison. And No. 3, the government recovered $6.8-million, which otherwise it never would have gotten.''
Rosin is serving his 22 years at a low-security federal prison in Miami, where his family now lives. Records show the Rosins still own a $2.2-million waterfront home in Sarasota. He reportedly has settled out of court with several former patients.
Still leery of doctors, Murray said she now makes sure that tissue samples are examined by an outside laboratory and not by the doctor himself, as Rosin did. "I think that's how he was able to get away with it,'' she said.
Murray, who still has a personal suit pending against Rosin, plans to donate some of her federal settlement to Paws for Patriots, which provides guide dogs to blinded service members.
As for Ferrara, she will be able to save her house and car. But since blowing the whistle on Rosin, she has been so broke at times that she would have gone hungry but for the kindness of strangers.
"I plan on helping a lot of people,'' she said. "Definitely the food banks because they helped me.''
Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at email@example.com