Patients flimflammed out of their prostheses?

  • Article by: DAN BROWNING , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 1, 2011 - 11:25 AM

FBI is investigating a Fairview manager over suspicions he got patients to replace high-quality limbs and then sold limbs on eBay.

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The FBI said it has traced the sale of 21 prosthetic limbs or components to the eBay account of Peter Stasica, left, in a 2003 photo, in the past six months.

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune

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The manager of prosthetic devices at the University of Minnesota Medical Center has been suspended with pay pending a federal investigation into whether he defrauded patients by convincing them to replace high-quality artificial limbs and parts and then selling their discards on eBay.

Court documents unsealed this week show federal agents recently searched the Coon Rapids home of Peter Stasica Jr., 50, who has been employed by the hospital's owner, Fairview Health Services, since 1994. They seized computer equipment, financial records and several prosthetic devices, including a lower leg, an arm and a knee.

The FBI said in a sworn statement that investigators traced the sale of at least 21 prosthetic limbs or components to Stasica's eBay account in the past six months, including a "knee to foot and leg system" that sold as recently as Aug. 15.

"According to Fairview policy, Stasica should not have any of these items as their policy is to donate the old prosthetics and orthotic items to people who have sustained injuries in a war zone," FBI Special Agent Mary Jo Herrett wrote in an affidavit to obtain a federal search warrant. "Fairview stores the items until Fairview doctors are able to donate their time and expertise to fit each of the donated items."

Stasica did not respond to phone or Facebook messages seeking comment. His Facebook page vanished from public view after a reporter tried to contact him there.

He has not been charged, though the affidavit cited possible violations of mail, wire and health care fraud. A Fairview spokesman said Stasica is on paid leave pending the results of the investigation, and that the hospital is cooperating with authorities.

Stasica's Facebook page said he studied health services and prosthetics at Metropolitan State University and was a member of its class of 1996. He's secretary of the Minnesota Society of Orthotists, Prosthetists & Pedorthists, a nonprofit industry group that promotes ethical standards.

Kevin Hines, president of the society, said he's known Stasica for years and described him as a "stand-up guy." Hines said he suspects the allegations against Stasica arose from "a complete misunderstanding."

John Michael, president of CPO Services and associate director of Northwestern University's Prosthetics-Orthotics Center, also vouched for Stasica, describing him as "dedicated, very conscientious" and knowledgeable. Michael said he would be dumbfounded if the allegations are true.

"I can't think of a justification for a professional to sell used devices to the general public," he said.

Fairview hired investigators

The FBI says its investigation has involved "extensive cooperation from Fairview employees." According to Herrett, an employee said Stasica interrupted a consultation with a patient who was being fitted in May for a better socket for his artificial leg. Stasica recommended a new prosthesis, which the employee found odd, Herrett said, because the patient, who receives federally funded medical benefits, already had a top model. The unidentified employee jotted down the leg's serial number and later found it had sold on eBay for $4,561 to a buyer in Alabama.

The seller was identified with an eBay alias of "612birddog." Fairview hired Heartland Investigative Group in Minneapolis, which traced the account through PayPal to Stasica.

The FBI said a search of public records found no record of Stasica operating any legitimate prosthetics business.

EBay records show buyers submitted feedback to 612birddog 194 times since April 2005, with no complaints. Until February, nearly all of the sales in the account involved baseball cards. Offers to sell prosthetic devices and related equipment followed.

While sales of used limbs on sites like eBay and Craigslist are common, amputee and prosthetic device organizations said they strongly discourage the practice.

"To summarize why eBay makes us nervous, it really comes down to safety," said Karen Lundquist, spokeswoman for Otto Bock's North American headquarters in Minneapolis. The privately held company, which started in Germany in 1919, is a major player in the global marketplace for orthotic and prosthetic devices. "There is no Carfax for prosthetic devices" to inform consumers how they've been used and maintained, Lundquist said.

The American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association has criticized the recycling of prosthetic devices in the United States, noting they require custom fitting and adjustment by professionals. "There could be potential liability should someone buy an artificial leg that has not been custom fabricated or fitted to their patient's specific anatomy and needs and that patient later experiences medical problems as a result of incorrect fit or inappropriate use," the group said in a statement several years ago.

The Star Tribune contacted a man who said he was one of 612birddog's regular eBay customers and who agreed to speak on condition he not be identified. He said in a telephone interview that he is a licensed prosthetist who began buying used equipment six years ago when he made mission trips to Ecuador. He said he has since moved to Costa Rica. But the government there pays a pittance toward prostheses, he said, so he buys used parts on eBay to assemble limbs patients can afford.

Most sellers on eBay are family members of amputees who've passed away, and they want the prosthetics put to good use, the buyer said.

"The parts that I'm buying [on eBay] are being put to use every day here," he said. "I'm a patient advocate."

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493

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