By Fred Schulte | KHN
Jean Louis-Charles couldn’t afford spine surgery to ease nagging neck and back pain after a car crash. So he signed a document, promising to pay the bill with money he hoped to get from a lawsuit against the driver who caused the collision.
That never happened.
Louis-Charles, 68, died hours after the operation at a South Florida outpatient surgery center in March 2019. The surgery center had put him in an Uber with his wife, Marie Julien, according to depositions. After a 60-mile ride home, he collapsed, court records show.
Her husband’s death left Julien to deal with more than $100,000 in medical debt, as described in the “letter of protection,” or LOP, that Louis-Charles had signed.
In signing an LOP, people generally pledge to cover the costs of their care even if it exceeds what they win in a lawsuit or other settlement — and even if the prices are far higher than most doctors would charge.
The agreements are legal and binding in many states, though Florida appears to be the epicenter of their use in personal injury cases. Advocates say the letters throw a lifeline to low-income people who need vital medical care for injuries caused by the negligence of others and don’t have the money or insurance coverage to pay for it. Doctors and surgery centers that accept LOPs say they often wait years for a lawsuit to settle before being paid, if at all.
A KHN investigation found that letters of protection can saddle patients with medical debt — and drive a personal injury care system that operates with little oversight despite widespread complaints of grossly inflated billings and other problems that can place patients at risk.
Marie Julien blamed Dr. Kingsley R. Chin — a controversial Hollywood, Florida, surgeon who has accepted LOP payments for more than a decade — for her husband’s death after the spinal fusion procedure. Last year, she filed a malpractice suit against Chin alleging that Louis-Charles died after he “was discharged home while still in pain and with signs and symptoms of post-operative complications.” In court papers, Chin denied any negligence.
“We felt that the way the whole thing happened was very bizarre,” Julien, 71, a certified nursing assistant, recalled in a deposition taken in the case.
A ‘Terrible Situation’
Just before 8 a.m. on New Year’s Day 2018, Louis-Charles’ car was stopped at a red light near his home. Suddenly a white police vehicle, driven by a Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office detective, backed into his Toyota Corolla, hitting the passenger side door, according to a police report.
In her deposition, Julien said Chin operated on her husband’s shoulder in 2018. But that didn’t help much, and Chin recommended more extensive surgery, she said. “I wasn’t happy at all with that idea,” she added.
Julien said she relented because Louis-Charles’ pain was getting worse “day by day” and he had confidence in the surgeon. The Aventura Surgery Center in Hallandale, Florida, where Chin had served as medical director, sent an Uber to collect the couple the morning of March 12, 2019, Julien said.
During the two-hour spinal fusion, Chin replaced three disks with an implant he invented, according to his deposition. The patient spent an hour or so in a recovery room before a nurse wheeled him out to a waiting Uber just after 3 p.m., according to Chin’s testimony.
Louis-Charles couldn’t speak, but signaled he was in pain and struggled to breathe during the hourlong ride home, according to Julien’s deposition. She helped him walk through the front door of their Riviera Beach home. Once inside he collapsed, she testified.
A fire rescue crew rushed him to a hospital in West Palm Beach, where he died just after 5:30 p.m., according to a Palm Beach County Medical Examiner’s autopsy report. The medical examiner ruled the death an accident caused by “post-surgical bleeding with airway compression.”
In his deposition, Chin said that Louis-Charles “looked great” heading out to the car and that traveling along the urban Interstate 95 corridor the driver was “at any given time probably within 10 minutes or so” from a “major hospital or emergency room.”
Chin called the outcome a “terrible situation” and told Julien’s lawyer during the deposition: “I just hope you can appreciate how much I regret what happened.”
Asked how her husband’s death has affected her life, Julien said: “How can you find words to explain such a thing?” The couple wed in 1987 in Miami after moving from their native Haiti, where he worked as a house carpenter.
“It’s been almost two years now. I have not been able to sleep on [the] bed” she shared with him, she said.
In late September, Julien and Chin settled the suit under confidential terms and the bills were “written off,” according to Kevin Smith, an attorney who represented Julien. Chin has denied any liability.
‘A Mixed Bag’
Though little-known to the public, letters of protection are commonly used to finance major medical care in personal injury cases, including costly orthopedic surgery.
Attorneys who refer injured clients to willing doctors say the liens are their best tool for ensuring clients not only gain access to care, but also are in a position to win fair settlements from insurance companies that fight to minimize their liability and costs.
An LOP form used by some Florida medical providers says they agree to wait for payment as a “courtesy” to the injured person, adding in boldface: “We understand insurance companies have unlimited resources, will hire defense lawyers and defense experts that will cause our payment to be delayed for months or years.”
The business community and insurers counter that LOP providers grossly inflate their medical fees to give juries a false picture of the costs of medical care.
“The sole purpose of the LOP, why it exists, is to drive up verdicts and settlements,” Lauren McBride, a lawyer for Publix Super Markets, a chain with more than 800 stores in Florida, testified in a state legislative hearing in February 2019.
McBride said that nearly two-thirds of “slip-and-fall” injury claims in Publix stores involve letters of protection. In more than half those cases, the injured person had some form of insurance but declined to use it, she said. In some cases, injured people traveled long distances for costly care they could have received closer to home at far less expense, she said. She also argued that LOPs give doctors an incentive to overtreat patients “to keep driving up medical bills” — and persuade juries to award big verdicts.
Kevin Leahy, an Austin, Texas, lawyer who has researched the practice there and represented clients on both sides of the debate, said LOPs deserve more scrutiny. “It’s a mixed bag,” he said. “There are definitely abuses going on. There are also hurt people getting care they need to get better.”
Leahy said LOPs have helped create a “liability-based” health care network with few checks on its financial dealings or other standards. He called it “unregulated, opaque and not fully accurate about charges.”
Across the country, LOPs have been tied to a range of alleged medical overcharges or other billing abuses, court records show.
Nearly 200 women from 42 states, for example, have joined a class-action suit that alleges doctors and lawyers talked them into signing LOPs promising to pay for surgical removal of pelvic mesh — whether they needed it removed or not.
The women allege that the doctors billed sky-high rates and told them their insurance would not cover the cost, so signing an LOP was the only way to safeguard their health. Private insurance would have paid about $8,000 for these services, far less than the $76,000-plus the women were charged under the LOP, according to the suit, filed in late August. The case is pending. Six doctors have filed motions to dismiss the case.
In a 2020 federal civil case, evidence emerged that a Texas spine surgeon charged nearly $400,000 under an LOP for procedures that Medicare would reimburse at less than $20,000, court records state.
Reviewing court cases in Florida, KHN found dozens of examples in which patients who signed LOPs alleged they were later sued for payment of excessive fees or received substandard medical care.
‘Unnecessary and Dangerous’
On the day of his spinal surgery, Louis-Charles signed a letter of protection that read in part: “While I am injured and need care, I cannot financially afford to pay your bill at the time services are rendered, I therefore, grant this provider a lien on my claim against any and all proceeds from any settlement, insurance benefits or judgment.”
The documents said he would be charged “what is usual and customary for our area.” But the fees were much higher than private health insurance would cover or what the Medicare fee schedule provides for.
The Aventura Surgery Center, co-owned by Miami personal injury attorney Sagi Shaked, billed nearly $100,000 for the operation, court records show. Two other Shaked-affiliated companies billed more than $35,000 for surgical supplies and anesthesia, according to the court records. Shaked did not respond to numerous requests for comment. In his deposition, Chin said he no longer operates at the Aventura Surgery Center.
Mark Woodard, 54, who was rear-ended in an April 2017 car crash in Fort Lauderdale, had three spine operations at the Aventura Surgery Center performed by Chin under a letter of protection.
His bills topped $430,000, including $179,500 for the surgery center, $177,972 billed by Chin’s medical office and $39,327 for implants from SpineFrontier, a Massachusetts medical device company Chin owns, court records show.
“These charges are way out of line,” said Michael Arrigo, a medical billing expert in California asked by KHN to review Woodard’s bills. Arrigo said “usual and customary” charges would be less than one-fourth of what was billed.
Woodard, who has worked as a painter and maintenance technician at beachfront hotels in Fort Lauderdale, argues in his lawsuit that his injuries from the crash were “nothing more than cervical and lumbar sprains and strains … such that no reasonable physician would have performed surgery other than for monetary purposes.”
According to Woodard’s lawsuit, Chin persuaded him to have multiple operations and during one tore a 1-centimeter hole through a nerve root, leaving him in “extreme agony and excruciating pain.”
The suit, filed in March 2021, alleges the surgery center offered Chin a “safe haven to perform his unnecessary and dangerous surgeries.” The suit alleges that Chin “was unable to perform surgery at any hospital in the state of Florida and most if not all surgery centers where he had applied had either denied him privileges or he had his privileges revoked at multiple hospitals.” In court filings, Shaked has denied the allegations and any liability.
Chin has been sued repeatedly for medical negligence, including several cases involving LOPs. He has been sanctioned by physician-licensing boards in three states, unrelated to his use of LOPs.
In early December, the Florida Department of Health, which licenses doctors, issued Chin a “letter of concern” and fined him $8,000. The action settled a state administrative complaint alleging that in August 2019 Chin sent home a 73-year-old man who suffered from complications of spinal surgery who should have been transferred “to a higher level of care in an inpatient setting (such as a hospital).” Chin disputed the allegations.
Separately, federal agents arrested Chin in early September in Fort Lauderdale on kickback charges as CEO at SpineFrontier, which sells spinal implants he invented and used in operations on Louis-Charles and Woodard. Chin has denied the civil allegations and has pleaded not guilty to the criminal charges.
In October, a federal judge ordered Chin to post a $500,000 bond secured by his Florida home. He is free to travel within the country “for business purposes only” and may travel one time per month to Jamaica “only for the purpose of practicing medicine there,” the order states. Chin has active medical licenses in Florida, Arizona, New Jersey, New York and in Jamaica, according to documents he filed with the court.
A ‘Complete Shock’
By its own account, the Broward Outpatient Surgical Center and its affiliates in Pompano Beach, Florida, have treated more than a thousand patients under letters of protection. But the billing practices — one lawsuit called its fees “astronomically unreasonable and inflated” — have been criticized in court filings for years. These cases often settle under confidential terms.
One patient argued in a lawsuit that injured patients were “bounced around” a web of affiliated clinics for services that included chiropractic care, pain injections, physical therapy and, finally, surgery, all done with no caps on the costs. The center denied the allegations, and the case has since been settled.
Albert Frevola, an attorney for the center, said that prior to treatment patients are given a price list and sign an agreement to pay the bills out of any settlement of their personal injury claims. He said the center serves many patients “who can’t afford to get medical care. It’s a service that is valuable and needed.”
Some three dozen former patients have filed a recent mass tort lawsuit alleging medical malpractice and billing fraud by the surgery center and its owners, chiropractors Brian and Craig Bauer, who are brothers. The suit also names spine surgeon Dr. Merrill Reuter, court records show. Neither Reuter nor his lawyer responded to requests for comment.
The patients allege they visited the center after a car crash or other accident and were persuaded to have spinal surgery. In some cases, the operations either were billed as more complex than they were, or not done at all, according to the suit. Patients often have run up bills of $100,000 or more under LOPs, court records show. “Due to the fact that personal injury patients rarely, if ever, use their private health insurance for such health care services, the Bauers and the Bauer entities were able to get away with charging inflated amounts,” according to the suit.
Frevola, who represents the brothers, said they “flatly deny” the allegations and “are sad and distressed that these accusations are being made by the same people they gave great care and medical treatment to.”
In a separate malpractice case, Terrell Harris, 37, alleged he was guided down a “treatment path” after a car crash in July 2017 that ended in surgery at prices “far beyond the scope of reason, let alone custom.” The center denied the allegations and filed a counterclaim accusing Harris of failing to pay for his care under the LOP.
The suit is one of eight pending in Broward County Circuit Court that make similar claims, including that of a woman who alleged she had the same pain after spinal surgery as she had beforehand. Nearly five years later, to her “complete shock,” an MRI found no evidence the operation she was billed for had been done, according to the suit.
In a February 2020 court filing in one of the cases, the center and Brian Bauer denied the allegations and called them “frivolous and scandalous.” They filed a counterclaim demanding to be paid for their services. The case is pending.
When fees are inflated under an LOP, patients can take home more money under an insurance settlement or jury verdict. But if a case settles for less than the sum of those bills, patients may be on the hook to pay the balance.
Lawyers who typically co-sign the LOPs try to persuade medical providers to reduce their fees, which often happens. When that fails, however, lawyers file a court action called an interpleader, which asks a judge to decide who gets what among warring creditors.
KHN reviewed dozens of Florida court cases in which medical creditors holding LOPs demanded payment in full. While many of these cases settled under confidential terms, court records show some accident victims ended up mired in debt or saw their damage awards drastically reduced by outsize medical billings and legal fees. In some cases, lawyers took home more than their injured clients.
That happened to Jose Merced, who fell and hurt himself after stepping into a hole outside his apartment in the Orlando area. He received a $75,000 settlement but incurred bills of more than $850,000 for operations and other medical costs, which he contested as “highly inflated,” court records show. The bills included more than $700,000 in orthopedic surgical and facility fees.
In August 2020, a judge allowed just over $35,000 to pay for the surgeries. Merced was awarded $10,000, while his lawyer got nearly $27,000, just over $18,000 of it for professional fees and the rest for expenses.
In some interpleader cases, lawyers asked judges for one-third of the total settlement for their fees, plus expenses, which can add hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars more to their share.
A law group founded by South Florida personal injury lawyer Robert Fenstersheib filed at least 50 interpleader cases in Broward County Circuit Court between January 2019 and October of this year. Fenstersheib, who was a fixture of local television ads as the “lawyer who listens,” was shot to death by his son in a murder-suicide in September 2020, though his Fenstersheib Law Group still operates under his relatives.
Many of the LOP patients now suing the Broward Outpatient Surgery Center and its owners were clients of the Fenstersheib firm, court records show. The center and the law firm did business for years, but the center sued the law firm in 2019 alleging the lawyers failed to pay it millions of dollars owed under LOPs. The law firm responded that it was a victim of a $6.5 million embezzlement by former employees who pocketed settlement money meant for the center. The suit was settled under confidential terms this year.
Federal prosecutors filed criminal charges against two former Fenstersheib employees in connection with the theft. In late November, one of the men, Michael Wihlborg, a 47-year-old high school dropout who had worked for the law firm for nearly two decades, admitted receiving more than $2.1 million in stolen funds from the scheme; he pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and three counts of filing a false income tax return, court records show. He faces up to 29 years in prison, according to court records. Co-defendant Matthew Matlock pleaded guilty to similar charges on Dec. 15, court records show. The law firm had no comment.
Some lenders also accept LOPs as collateral for patients who borrow money to tide them over while their personal injury case winds through the courts, which typically takes years. Interest charges pile up fast.
A Miami man who was injured after a pile of wood fell on him at a home improvement store borrowed $51,400 from a finance company backed by an LOP in September 2014. He owed the company $140,322 three years later because of an interest rate of 18% charged every six months, court records show.
Doctors also can generate cash from letters of protection. While they argue they must wait years for payment, some spine surgeons sell the liens on a burgeoning medical debt market.
Court records in Florida show millions of dollars of these liens have changed hands when doctors sold them. Buyers paid 10% to 25% of the total amount of the bill and gambled they would be able to collect a tidy profit once a patient’s lawsuit was settled.
The ethics of doctors wheeling and dealing in patient bills and having a financial stake in the outcome of litigation has been questioned. An American Medical Association policy says such deals are unethical because “there is the ever-present danger that the physician may become less of a healer and more of an advocate or partisan in the proceedings.”
Dr. Scott Lederhaus, a retired California neurosurgeon who has reviewed personal injury cases for the defense, said some patients argue in depositions that under an LOP they never saw bills, so they had no idea of the extent of the medical costs they were incurring over time.
Lederhaus said there is little agreement on what is a reasonable medical fee and, as a result, doctors “are able to charge whatever they want” in personal injury cases.
And it remains unclear whether the No Surprises Act, which Congress passed last year amid a national outcry over huge and unexpected medical bills, offers patients who signed LOPs any protection.
“A lot of these doctors are under the impression they can do whatever they want and there’s not going to be any oversight by anyone,” Lederhaus said.
KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Together with Policy Analysis and Polling, KHN is one of the three major operating programs at KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is an endowed nonprofit organization providing information on health issues to the nation.