Eye doctor preyed on mentally ill to carry out needless operations

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A New York eye doctor has been found guilty of performing thousands of needless operations on mentally incapacitated residents of old people's homes and fraudulently recouping the costs from the government.

For years Dr Shaul Debbi preyed on the elderly and infirm in New York, urging procedures on them, such as the removal of cataracts, that were almost always unnecessary. From 1998 to 2001, he billed for more than 10,000 services that were either improper or were never actually carried out.

Prosecutors filed fraud charges against Dr Debbi after an investigation into the state of the city's poorly supervised adult homes by the New York Times. He was convicted in a Manhattan court on Monday and faces fines of almost $1m (£608,000) and three years in prison. He will also lose his licence.

At the trial, prosecutors submitted notes written by Dr Debbiin which he assessed each prospective resident in terms of how easy it would be to persuade him or her to submit to a procedure. Thus, in some instances, he would write, "Smart. Do not invite" or, in others, "Confused. Must invite".

Most egregiously, the doctor once billed the government for repayment from the federal Medicare funds for an eye operation that he allegedly carried out on one of the homes' residents. Investigators subsequently determined that the patient was missing the eye in question before the "operation" was carried out.

A lawyer for Dr Debbi told the court that his client regretted the crimes.

"Shaul Debbi is a good man and a good doctor who spent years of his life providing medical care to the least fortunate of our society," John Wing said.

For some of those who gave in to the persuasive charms of Dr Debbi, the news that he will be imprisoned for his deceptions brought relief. Among them is Gail Barnabas, 54, a resident at the Queens Adult Care Centre, who agreed to undergo cataract surgery even though she was not having any trouble with her vision. "I didn't know him, but I trusted him," she said.

The case has raised alarm bells among state officials, who are asking how it was possible that Dr Debbi was able to exploit so many residents in so many different city homes without anyone detecting him or trying to stop him. Regulators now admit that this kind of fraud appears to be widespread.

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