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2 SoCal surgery centers lose accreditation, a third faces increased scrutiny

A billboard for the Lap Band over the 210 freeway.
Corey Bridwell/KPCC
A billboard for the Lap Band over the 210 freeway. The ad campaign was pulled after a crackdown by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The Joint Commission, an agency charged with evaluating hospital and outpatient clinics nationwide has taken the unusual step of denying accreditation to a Southern California surgery center and KPCC has learned that a second facility has lost accreditation. 

A third affiliated  clinic in West Hills has also been targeted for further scrutiny, says Elisabeth Zhani, spokeswoman for the non-profit Joint Commission. All three were linked to the 1-800-GET-THIN  ad campaign that widely promoted Lap-Band weight loss surgery. 

Zhani says the two facilities that lost accreditation are the New Life Surgery Center in Beverly Hills -  where three patients died after Lap-Band weight loss surgery - and  the San Diego Ambulatory Surgery Center.

Last June, KPCC was first to report that alleged unsanitary conditions and practices at that San Diego facility may have unknowingly exposed several patients to the Hepatitis C virus.

Zhani says  the actions against both clinics became effective on Aug. 7th, after all reviews and appeals were exhausted. The loss of accreditation means the centers may no longer perform surgery on patients under general anesthesia. 

"Denial of accreditation… is a very serious outcome,"said Michael Kulczycki,  executive director of the Joint Commission’s Ambulatory Health Care Accreditation Program. "It happens in less than one percent of all cases."

The third outpatient facility, Valley Surgical Center in West Hills,  where two patients died after weight loss surgery, received an "accreditation with follow up survey.  Kulczycki says that rating allows a surgery center  it to continue operating but  requires it undergo an additional inspections within 30 to 180 days.  

"An organization receives the status of “accreditation with follow up survey” because we found patterns of non compliance with areas that put either patients or staff at risk," Kulczycki said. 

Among those praising the Joint Commission’s actions is Torrance resident, Betty Brown. Her sister Tamara Walter was among the patients who died after undergoing weight loss surgery at the Beverly Hills facility in 2010.

"We’ve been working very hard just to educate the public. To make people aware of the seriousness of going to someone like them, a facility like them and this just delights me," Brown says. "I’m very happy. "

In the years since Walter's death, Brown has worked to strengthen regulations governing California's burgeoning outpatient surgery industry. Still, KPCC has found that the Medical Board of California has failed to implement key provisions of a new law,  intended to provide stronger patient protections.

The three surgical facilities and a number of others throughout the state are linked, through numerous lawsuits and government investigations, to Dr. Michael Omidi and his brother,  Julian Omidi. 

The two have been at the center of numerous civil lawsuits and government investigations involving the surgery centers and the once ubiquitous 1-800-GET-THIN ad campaign that was ended last year after a crackdown by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. 

Last October, a federal investigator confirmed in a court document that several federal and state law enforcement agencies are investigating allegations against  Julian and Michael Omidi, including  conspiracy, health care fraud, money laundering and tax violations. 

The Omidi brothers have also been the subject of several disciplinary actions by the Medical Board of California (MBC).

Dr. Michael Omidi is now facing action for “repeated negligent acts” in treating patients. His attorney denies  the allegations. 

This most recent accusation against Michael Omidi comes less than two years after he completed a three-year suspension of his medical license that the MBC  imposed on him for performing surgeries in unaccredited facilities.  

His brother, Julian Omidi, lost his medical license six years ago for failure to report that UC Irvine had expelled him for a campus burglary.