By Emily Wagster Pettus/The Associated Press
JACKSON — A federal judge on Friday sentenced a doctor to 20 years in prison and ordered her to repay nearly $8.2 million for fraud at a former Mississippi cancer center she ran. U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III said he was “appalled” at how Dr. Meera Sachdeva treated patients at a vulnerable time of their lives.
Syringes were re-used and different patients’ chemotherapy drugs were drawn from the same bag at Rose Cancer Center in the small town of Summit, Jordan said. He said prosecutors were unable to prove drugs were watered down, as they originally believed.
“It’s a very small thing to send this woman to jail for the next 20 years when you compare it to the damage she has done,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Gilbert.
Sachdeva, 50, declined to speak in court Friday. Wearing an orange prison jumpsuit and shackled around her waist and at her ankles, she showed little emotion and did not turn to look at several former patients or their families who were in the courtroom.
Sachdeva founded Rose Cancer Center in Summit in 2005. She pleaded guilty July 13 to one count of health care fraud and two counts of making false statements. Prosecutors said she submitted claims for chemotherapy services that were supposedly given while she was out of the country.
Jordan also sentenced two others in the case Friday.
The clinic’s office manager, Brittany McCoskey, 26, of Monticello, was sentenced to 13 months in prison and ordered to help pay $55,069 in restitution. She previously pleaded guilty May 17 to making false statements.
McCoskey said Friday she knew about a bone marrow biopsy being done by a phlebotomist, whose job is collecting blood. The biopsy should’ve been done by a doctor. McCoskey said she knew it was wrong but she didn’t report it to authorities because, she said, “I was afraid of losing my job.”
Prosecutors said McCoskey blocked nurses from calling ambulances for patients who needed emergency care, and sent away a technician who went to the clinic to repair an important piece of medical equipment. They said she also falsified records.
“I know what I did was wrong, and if I could change all of this I would,” McCoskey said, her voice rising as she sobbed.
Jordan told McCoskey: “I’m not persuaded by the fact that, ‘Somebody told me to do it.'”
Monica Weeks, 40, of Madison, handled the clinic’s billing from her Ridgeland firm, Medical Billing Group. Jordan sentenced her to three months’ house arrest and three years’ probation and ordered her to help pay $19,550 in restitution. She pleaded guilty to conspiracy July 13.
“I’m truly sorry for the mistakes I made, and I promise nothing like this will ever happen again,” Weeks told the judge.
Attorneys said dozens of people submitted letters of support for Weeks.
“Some of the letters said that she did nothing wrong,” Jordan said. “I disagree with that.”
The judge said that although Weeks voluntarily contacted authorities when she suspected wrongdoing at the clinic, she was involved in more than $19,000 of fraudulent billing.
Relatives of two former Rose Cancer Clinic patients testified Friday.
Rosetta Chairs of Metairie, La., said her older sister, Gloria Chairs, was treated there despite being wrongly diagnosed with cancer. Rosetta Chairs said she believes the treatments contributed to her sister’s death earlier this year at age 49.
Ernest Whittington, a Baptist minister from Liberty, Miss., said his wife of 61 years, Bettie, survived breast cancer but later developed bone cancer and was treated at Rose Cancer Clinic. He said she grew extremely ill while being treated at the clinic, and he believes it was because of the medicine she was given there. She died in August 2011.
“She was my helpmate all those years,” Whittington said. “I lost my right arm when I lost her.”
Civil lawsuits have also been filed against Sachdeva in state court.
The Mississippi Health Department closed Rose Cancer Clinic in July 2011 because of “unsafe infection control practices” after 11 patients were hospitalized with the same bacterial infection. The scare led officials to test nearly 300 cancer patients for infections such as HIV. The department has said none of the patients tested had blood-borne viral infections related to the clinic’s care. However, a civil lawsuit claims at least one patient died about the time the clinic was shut down from HIV he contracted there.
Sachdeva, a naturalized citizen from India, has been held without bond since her arrest in August 2011 because she’s considered a flight risk. Prosecutors say she had considerable assets, including bank accounts in her native country, despite the seizure of about $6 million.
Associated Press writer Holbrook Mohr contributed to this report.