“Investigations such as this can be complicated and time-consuming and we commend the investigators who worked to protect consumers by combining their time, knowledge and energy to bringing this case to completion.” – CSLEA President Alan Barcelona
LOS ANGELES – On December 9, 2022, a neurosurgeon was sentenced to 60 months in federal prison for accepting approximately $3.3 million in bribes for performing spinal surgeries at a now-defunct Long Beach hospital whose owner later was imprisoned for committing a massive workers’ compensation system scam.
Lokesh S. Tantuwaya, 55, of San Diego was also ordered to forfeit his ill-gotten gains of $3.3 million.
Tantuwaya pleaded guilty on September 1 to one count of conspiracy to commit honest services mail and wire fraud and to receive illegal payments for health care referrals. He has been in federal custody since May 2021 after he was found to have violated the terms of his pretrial release.
From 2010 to 2013, Tantuwaya accepted money from Michael Drobot, who owned Pacific Hospital in Long Beach, in exchange for Tantuwaya performing spinal surgeries at that hospital. The bribe amount varied depending on the type of spinal surgery.
Pacific Hospital specialized in surgeries, especially spinal and orthopedic procedures. Drobot, who in 2018 was sentenced to 63 months in prison for his crimes in this scheme, conspired with doctors, chiropractors and marketers to pay kickbacks and bribes in return for the referral of thousands of patients to Pacific Hospital for spinal surgeries and other medical services paid for primarily through the California workers’ compensation system. During its final five years, the scheme resulted in the submission of more than $500 million in medical bills for spine surgeries involving kickbacks.
Tantuwaya entered into contracts with Drobot and Drobot-owned companies. Tantuwaya knew or deliberately was ignorant that the payments were being given to him in exchange for bringing his patient surgeries to Pacific Hospital.
In furtherance of the scheme, Tantuwaya met with Drobot and Drobot’s employees. Tantuwaya deposited bribe checks into his bank accounts. He knew the receipt of money in exchange for the referral of medical service was illegal and that he owed a fiduciary duty to his patients to not accept money in exchange for taking their surgeries to Pacific Hospital.
In total, Tantuwaya received approximately $3.3 million in illegal payments.
“Despite his privileges at San Diego-area hospitals, [Tantuwaya] caused several patients to travel from Imperial County and San Diego County up to Pacific Hospital for spine surgery so that [Tantuwaya] could get his bribes,” prosecutors argued in a sentencing memorandum. “This resulted in numerous patient-victims enduring the physical anguish of multi-hour trips after invasive spinal surgeries, in addition [to] dealing with the mental anguish of now wondering whether they needed a surgery, whether the medical hardware drilled into their bones was legitimate hardware, and whether they should have trusted [Tantuwaya] with their lives.”
In April 2013, law enforcement searched Pacific Hospital, which was sold later that year, bringing the kickback scheme to an end.
To date, 23 defendants have been convicted for participating in the kickback scheme.
The FBI, IRS Criminal Investigation, the United States Postal Service Office of Inspector General, and the California Department of Insurance investigated this matter.