By Brendan Pierson
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A doctor and a surgical funding consultant were arrested on Friday on charges that they defrauded women into having unnecessary surgeries to remove transvaginal mesh implants in order to profit from settlements paid to the women by mesh manufacturers, U.S. prosecutors in New York said.
Urogynecologist Christopher Walker, 49, of Florida, and Wesley Barber, 49, of Michigan, were both charged with wire fraud and conspiracy in an indictment unsealed in federal court in Brooklyn.
Barber, who is the owner of Surgical Assistance Inc and Medical Funding Consultants LLC, was arrested in Texas and Walker in Florida, authorities said.
“Dr. Walker maintains his innocence and is committed to defending his case vigorously,” said Fritz Scheller, a lawyer for Walker, in an email. A lawyer for Barber could not immediately be reached.
Transvaginal mesh implants, which have been pulled from the U.S. market, were commonly implanted in women to repair weakened or damaged tissue and provide support in cases of pelvic organ prolapse. Tens of thousands of lawsuits have been filed in recent years against medical device manufacturers, saying the implants caused pain, perforations, urinary problems, bleeding and other injuries.
Manufacturers, including Boston Scientific and Johnson & Johnson, eventually reached agreements to settle many of those lawsuits.
In the indictment unsealed on Friday, prosecutors said that Walker and Barber sought to profit from women who had their mesh implants removed and were entitled to larger settlement payments under those agreements than women who did not.
Walker, Barber and others persuaded women to have their mesh implants removed by lying to them about the health risks they posed, and told them they would have to travel to have the procedure done by specific doctors, including Walker, prosecutors said.
Barber’s companies funded the surgeries, either by purchasing the women’s medical debts or making direct loans, allowing them to collect money from any settlements received by the women, prosecutors said. Some of the funding agreements included “exorbitant” interest rates and left the women on the hook even if they never received a settlement, according to the indictment.
Walker paid kickbacks and bribes to Barber in exchange for referrals to perform the surgeries, according to prosecutors.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last month ordered the two remaining companies selling transvaginal mesh, Boston Scientific and Coloplast A/S, to halt sales of the product, citing safety concerns.
(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; editing by Grant McCool and Rosalba O’Brien)