Lawmakers Reprimand UC Irvine
At a Sacramento hearing, top officials are upbraided over the continuing series of problems at
the medical school and hospital.
By Christian Berthelsen, LA Times Staff Writer, May 23, 2006
SACRAMENTO — State senators excoriated top UC Irvine officials Monday for a lack of accountability over the
failure of the school's liver transplant program and a decade-long string of other problems. One senator threatened to
use the Legislature's budget power to force officials to be more responsible.
Under sometimes hostile questioning from the Senate Health Committee, university officials, including Chancellor
Michael Drake, sought to provide assurances they were taking problems seriously and trying to root out a culture in
which people preferred to hide problems rather than deal with them.
But during the two-hour hearing, senators doubted whether UCI was taking sufficient steps and noted that problems
had continued to arise despite previous reform efforts.
"This may be one of those rare times when I don't have any confidence that anyone is taking responsibility for this,"
said Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D-Sacramento), chairwoman of the committee. "Someone's got to be accountable for this.
This is just appalling."
The hearing was the latest look into problems at UCI since The Times revealed in November that UCI Medical
Center in Orange was turning down scores of viable livers even as 32 potential transplant recipients died, at times
because the school had no surgeon to perform the transplants.
It was the most recent failure in a decade that has seen the closure of UCI's fertility clinic after eggs and embryos
were stolen from patients and implanted in other women; cadavers were lost and body parts misappropriated in its
Willed Body Program; and research violations were committed in its cancer clinic.
There also were shortcomings in other transplant programs and questions about nepotism and favoritism.
The FBI and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have launched an investigation into whether there
was fraudulent billing of government health insurance in the liver transplant program and have subpoenaed the
compensation agreements of five doctors. The liver transplant problems also have unleashed a string of lawsuits.
Monday's hearing elicited little new information about how the program failed, although senators left open the
possibility that they would hold more sessions. The focus on UCI was part of a broader legislative inquiry into
problems throughout the University of California system, including excessive and undisclosed compensation for top
After the hearing, Ortiz said she was looking at ways to cut non-patient funding from UCI's budget if it failed to
meet targets to improve its management. She said she would draw from a report by a panel of experts that in
February recommended a wide array of reforms for UCI, including establishing clearer chains of command and
The panel concluded that UCI Medical Center's ambitions far outstripped its ability to take care of patients.
Attaching UCI's funding to benchmarks would "give us confidence they are going to put in place a line of
communication that holds someone responsible," Ortiz said. She acknowledged that she would have to convince
legislators with authority over UC's budget to adopt the language.
Drake, an ophthalmologist who took over UCI's top job in July 2005, guided the senators through a litany of actions
that had been taken since the latest problems came to light, including the demotion of the hospital's chief executive
and the creation of a vice chancellor's position to oversee the medical center and the School of Medicine. Drake also
said he issued reprimands and took away some managers' oversight responsibilities, but he did not specifically
identify those people.
"I was extremely disappointed and disturbed to learn about the issues with UCI Medical Center's liver transplant
program last November," Drake testified.
"My diagnosis: a communications breakdown, a lack of accountability, a failure to adhere to our values."
Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) then made Drake repeat the statement twice more, like a wayward child
ordered to write a chalkboard apology.
In one contentious exchange, Sen. Abel Maldonado (R-Santa Maria) read published comments that medical school
Dean Thomas Cesario made about steps taken to fix problems in the school's medical programs. Maldonado then
informed Cesario that the comments had been made in 1998 and went on to recite a string of problems that had
occurred since then.
"Why are we here today? We're here because over the past decade, UC Irvine has been plagued by scandal after
scandal, and at the heart of each one has been a lack of accountability," Maldonado said.
If legislators were similarly irresponsible, he said, "we'd be recalled. But at the University of California, it's OK."
Cesario announced this month that he would step down from his position in November, eight months earlier than
scheduled. He has been dean for 12 years.
Senators were thwarted when they asked Cesario about his presence at a July 2004 meeting in Chicago at which UCI
officials misled national organ network regulators about the liver transplant program's health. A lawyer for the UC
system, Jeff Blair, stopped Cesario from answering, saying the question "would potentially intrude upon the ongoing
litigation, as well as the Department of Justice administrative subpoena."
Article URL: http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-uci23may23,1,902431.story