My Conscience Is Killing Me

A nurse says a prominent Newport Beach physician gave AIDS patients bogus drugs. The doctor says hes being blackmailed

In his attorney's office, Virgil Opinion—a longtime medical technician for a prominent Newport Beach doctor —uttered a patient's name and then bowed his head and wept. After half a minute, the 42-year-old wiped tears from his eyes, shifted in his seat and stared out the window at the distant Saddleback Mountains. He repeated the patient's name and said, "My conscience has been killing me."

The patient was a gravely ill Costa Mesa man battling AIDS and anemia from hepatitis C treatments. In February, he made an appointment with Dr. G. Steven Kooshian, Opinion's boss. The patient was in line for a liver transplant; badly fatigued, he hoped to make office visits temporarily unnecessary. He wanted a month's supply of Epogen, an expensive drug that helps replenish critical red blood cells. Kooshian assured the patient he would fill the request, according to Opinion.

But there was a problem.

"We don't have a month's supply of Epogen," Opinion remembers reminding the doctor in front of the patient.

"Yes, we do," Kooshian allegedly replied.

The technician says he protested again but was ordered to "go prepare the shots."

Opinion, a soft-spoken Filipino immigrant who arrived in the U.S. 14 years ago after graduating from a Manila medical school, says he reluctantly went to the office's laboratory and prepared 28 syringes.

"Only a few of the shots had a little bit of Epogen. Most of them had none. The patient basically just got saline or water," Opinion told the OC Weekly. "Kooshian knew the patient was getting suboptimal doses, but he didn't care. The bottom line for him was the money. Those shots made him a lot of money. I became even more depressed when that patient told me how appreciative he was of what we were doing for him."

Opinion says he confronted the doctor once more. He claims Kooshian promised to "destroy me and make sure I'd never work in the medical field again" if the technician revealed the fake injections to the patient or authorities. A few days later, Opinion—suffering stomach cramps, headaches, depression and the early stages of insomnia—quit.

"I couldn't take it anymore," he said. "I didn't like what was happening."

The Epogen episode was merely the latest installment in a series of alleged frauds that Opinion claims drove him to psychiatric care and the unemployment line. Now on state disability, he alleges that Kooshian cheated patients—gave them useless shots of water but billed them for costly drugs—for much of the 11 years they worked together. He said the doctor made "many millions of dollars this way."

"Dr. Kooshian told me, 'Never, never, never give the proper dose,'" recalled Opinion. "He always wanted the patient shortchanged, especially HIV and hepatitis patients with good insurance. It happened all the time. 'Virgil,' Kooshian said to me, 'you know I have a business to run.'"

Key sources familiar with Dr. Kooshian's office confirmed that Opinion had repeatedly protested the doctor's practices. "You can bank on what Virgil has told you," said one source who spoke on condition of anonymity. "He just didn't concoct these things."

This week, Opinion filed a 13-page wrongful-termination lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court. The suit alleges that Kooshian effectively fired his technician for complaining about workplace illegalities.

"The evidence proves that Dr. Kooshian has little or no concern for his patients and employees and the gay community that he purports to serve," said Eric Lampel, Opinion's attorney and a partner in Lampel & Rivers, an Irvine-based firm specializing in discrimination and civil rights cases. "He is only concerned about his own profits."

In 1999, I commended Dr. George Steven Kooshian in the Weekly's Best of OC issue for his community service. The doctor had impressed me by the way he treated a sick, uninsured friend of mine. Despite the length of the office visit and the tests performed, Kooshian —a recipient of numerous appreciation awards, the subject of several positive medical journal articles and a generous contributor to charities—had taken into account my friend's low-income status and charged him only $30 or $40.

That's not to suggest that medicine has not been financially rewarding for the 50-year-old doctor. His Ocean View Internal Medicine practice has highly profitable offices in Laguna Beach, Garden Grove and Long Beach. In 1997, he built a $3.6 million, five-bedroom mansion on 17,300 square feet in Newport Coast, one of Orange County's most exclusive gated communities; a real-estate expert said the Pelican Hill estate, with its sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean, might fetch almost $4 million today. His 900-square-foot garage houses a fleet of cars: a black Z8 convertible BMW; a maroon Mercedes SUV; a silver Mercedes sedan; and yellow-, black- and eggplant-colored Porsches. One source said the doctor refers to his vehicles affectionately as "my toys."

Five days after I first attempted to contact him about the allegations, Kooshian called. "I am truly upset, saddened and disturbed, and I want to be forthcoming," he said with a strong native-Virginian accent. "But to be quite honest, I haven't seen any complaint."

After being reminded that Opinion's attorney had provided him with a draft of the complaint two months earlier and that attorneys for both sides had had several contacts, the doctor amended his answer. "I am aware of some very, very vague allegations," he said. "But I haven't seen the complaint to know the specifics of what is on the table."

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