TAMPA — A Department of Veterans Affairs contractor sent dozens of veterans to consult with a Tampa doctor about disability claims this year, even as the Justice Department was trying to take away the doctor's license and send him to prison.
After inquiries by the Tampa Bay Times, the VA plans to take a fresh look at the claims of 57 veterans seen by Dr. Chuma Osuji "to ensure the veterans were accurately evaluated," said Karen Collins, public affairs officer at James A. Haley Hospital and Clinics.
The contractor, Veterans Evaluation Services, said a federal data bank that is the gold standard for doctor background checks makes no mention of criminal charges against Osuji. It doesn't include pending cases.
The 52-year-old doctor, indicted last year, admits in court papers that he prescribed controlled pain medications while he was barred from doing so by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
He was found guilty in July and is scheduled to be sentenced in October. The crime is punishable by up to 20 years in prison. On June 26, he signed a plea agreement that calls for forfeiture of his medical license.
If the stakes that day were high for Osuji, they were also high for Mike Evans, 62, a retired Army sergeant and prostate cancer survivor who visited Osuji's Gandy Boulevard clinic on June 26.
The doctor's subsequent report led the VA to propose cutting the veteran's monthly compensation from $3,172 to $579, covering diabetes and tinnitus but not cancer.
Evans, of Plant City, had been referred by Veterans Evaluation Services, a Houston-based company hired by the VA to help break up a backlog of disability compensation claims.
He was presumed by the VA to have been exposed to the carcinogenic herbicide Agent Orange, like anyone else who served in Vietnam. It has been linked to aggressive prostate cancer and diabetes. Two years after private treatment, he was due for a VA re-check.
He said Osuji took his blood pressure, asked his weight and quizzed him briefly about family medical history before sending him on his way.
"He didn't even take blood work," Evans said.
Osuji did not respond to telephone and email messages. His attorney, Timothy Fitzgerald, declined to comment.
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Until his indictment, it was Osuji's compassion that drew public attention.
The Nigerian immigrant-turned-doctor started a medical charity in 2002, a nod to the days when he worked in a gas station and couldn't afford health care.
Federal agents interviewed him in 2004 while investigating an online pharmacy and he became part of a 2010 DEA report. Osuji, it said, prescribed hydrocodone to people without examining them. He was not criminally charged at the time.
Shortly after, the DEA quietly suspended Osuji's authority to prescribe controlled substances. The suspension was disclosed in the June plea agreement.
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Most of the 2010 DEA report had been about Dr. Ronald Lynch of Lake Mary, sentenced in 2013 to 25 years in state prison for drug trafficking.
Lynch's significance is more than historical. Earlier this year, he was transferred from prison to the Pinellas County jail at the request of federal prosecutors to be a witness at Osuji's trial. It was canceled after the plea.
• • •
Anyone researching Osuji on the Florida Department of Health website would find his medical license "free and clear," with no discipline or complaints.
Veterans Evaluation Services had authorization to use the confidential National Practitioner Data Bank to check Osuji's background. The contractor found no reason to refuse him, according to Scott Orr, senior vice president and general counsel for VES Group Inc.
"We have a thorough, comprehensive credentialing process," Orr said. "He cleared that process. He was a military officer, a major in the Air Force, had been honorably discharged. You look at that and you look at his medical license and you go, 'Okay.' "
It's no mistake that pending charges didn't show up on the federal data bank, according to David Bowman, spokesman for the Health Resources and Services Administration, which oversees the tool.
"Only after an individual has been convicted of a charge can they be considered guilty, thus triggering the requirement for a report to be made to the NPDB," he said. "This is a choice that Congress made."
He said federal and state prosecutors have 30 days after a criminal conviction or civil judgment to report the decision.
By then, some cases have been years in the making.
Pinellas Park pain management Dr. Edward Neil Feldman was federally charged in December with illegally prescribing drugs that led to three deaths. State records and complaints tell of other patient overdoses dating back to 2009.
A judge ordered him to stop practicing medicine while free on bail. But that restriction isn't evident in the state database, which reports that his license is "clear" and that he is authorized to prescribe controlled substances.
He awaits trial in October.
As for Osuji, the VA contractor recently stopped sending him patients. Company attorney Orr said it was unrelated to the criminal case but didn't elaborate.
• • •
Evans, the prostate cancer survivor, was among those who knew about Osuji's charge.
Just before the June appointment, Evans' wife looked up the doctor on the Internet. She found a Times article about his criminal case and called Evans at work.
"You're kidding me," he remembers saying.
He went, anyway. He didn't think he had a choice.
He isn't the first veteran to dispute a doctor's opinion. But he's incredulous that anyone would conclude he no longer has residual effects from his cancer or its treatment, which included eight weeks of radiation and 54 radioactive seeds in his prostate.
Bruce Clisby, a management analyst for the St. Petersburg VA Regional Office, said Evans submitted a request for a personal hearing and will get one.
Evans questions whether he had Osuji's full attention on that June day, with the doctor having just agreed to quit practicing.
"How would he even have me in his thought process?" Evans asked.
Contact Patty Ryan at email@example.com or (813) 226-3382.