Consumer Health Digest #03-07

Your Weekly Update of News and Reviews
February 18, 2003

Consumer Health Digest is a free weekly e-mail newsletter edited by Stephen Barrett, M.D., and cosponsored by NCAHF and Quackwatch. It summarizes scientific reports; legislative developments; enforcement actions; news reports; Web site evaluations; recommended and nonrecommended books; and other information relevant to consumer protection and consumer decision-making.

Chiropractic "practice-builder" convicted of insurance fraud. A federal jury in Clarksburg, West Virginia has found Ronald L. Halstead, D.C., and two West Virginia chiropractors guilty of charges relating to a conspiracy to commit mail fraud and health care fraud. Halstead was found guilty of one count of conspiracy, 14 counts of health care fraud, and 11 counts of money laundering; and William C. Filcheck Jr. D.C., and Scott G. Taylor , D.C. were both found guilty of one count of conspiracy and 14 counts of health care fraud. A fourth defendant, Robert B. Burns, Jr., D.C., who owned the clinics in which the fraud took place, has been arrested in Ireland and is fighting to prevent extradition to face the charges. The scheme involved the submission of false claims to Medicare and private insurance companies for more than $2.8 million in order to evade payment limitations.

Halstead has been teaching chiropractors how to boost their incomes for more than 20 years. A 1981 advertisement for his audiotaped practice-management course stated that he saw over 700 patients per week and had made nearly $800,000 in 1980 but, due to investments and "proper income tax planning," had paid no income tax for 7 consecutive years. Not long afterward, he was convicted of Medicaid fraud in Illinois. In 1982, he moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, where he operated Practice Systems, a practice-management firm that taught chiropractors how set up high-volume MD/DC practices for rehabilitating injured patients. During the 1990s, ads for his seminars boasted that many of his clients had increased their income by $50,000 per month and that a few were producing over $300,000 per month. The indictment noted that the chiropractors used scripts created by Halstead that were designed to (a) persuade new patients that they had serious spinal conditions, even if they did not; (b) persuade the patients that their "conditions" could be effectively treated by chiropractic manipulation and other means; and (c) overcome any objections the prospective patients had to the type, frequency, length, and cost of the proposed treatments. The clinic staff then followed protocols devised by Halstead to order treatment based on the scope of the patients' insurance coverage rather than their actual physical conditions and needs. Chirobase has posted Halstead's 1981 ad, samples of his scripts, a copy of the indictment, and further details about the case.

Professor targeted for not recommending creationists. Prompted by a complaint from the Liberty Legal Institute (a group of Christian lawyers), the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating whether Michael L. Dini, an associate professor of biology at Texas Tech University is discriminating against religious beliefs by declaring that students wanting his recommendation for graduate school must provide scientific answers to questions about the origin of the human species. [Madigan N. Professor's snub of creationists prompts U.S. inquiry. New York Times, Feb 3, 2003] Dini wants to ensure that students who request his recommendation use scientific thinking to answer scientific questions. Referring to evolution, his Web site states that people who ignore the most important theory in biology cannot expect to properly practice in a field like medicine that is heavily based on biology. A core issue in the case is whether college educators have the right to "provoke and challenge the core beliefs of their students, rather than lamely skirting controversy." [Mooney C. Dini is Served: A spat at Texas Tech provides a new wrinkle on Darwinism and science education. CSICOP Web site, Feb 3, 2003]

FDA seizes Vitamin Hut/Rx for Health products. On February 13, 2003, at the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), U.S. Marshals seized products from Global Source Management & Consulting, Inc., in Sunrise, Florida. The seizure, which encompassed 450 bottles and 57,000 bulk capsules worth nearly $19,000, was made because the products were being marketed with illegal claims that included preventing cancers and treating arthritis. After investigating the firm's marketing practices, the agency warned that many of its products made drug claims that subject them to be regulated as drugs. During subsequent inspections, despite the warnings, FDA inspectors obtained copies of product labels and promotional catalogs that contained the illegal claims. The seizure included about 20 products that were marketed under the names Vitamin Hut and RX for Health through shopping malls and by mail order. [FDA seizes dietary supplements. FDA news release, Feb 13, 2002.]. The company's Web site still contains dubious claims that its products are effective against more than 100 other diseases and conditions. [Barrett S. FDA seizes misbranded supplement products. Quackwatch, Feb 16, 2003]

FTC chairman hits TV ad policies. FTC chairman Timothy J. Muris has urged media executives to "Do the Right Thing" and stop running ads that contain obviously deceptive weight-loss product claims. Speaking to the Cable Television Advertising Bureau in New York, Muris said that ads that make claims that are clearly implausible and patently false "run in all forms of media, with the notable exception of network TV." He urged members of the media to help protect consumers, as well as the credibility of advertising, by promoting truthful weight-loss ads. After showing a typical infomercial, he commented:

You do not need to be a scientist, ad executive, or expert to recognize the outrageous claims you just heard. Judging by the reaction in this room, I know that you do not. The common reaction when I show such an ad to a sophisticated audience is laughter, but these ads are no laughing matter. Targeted to consumers trying to lose weight, they make claims and promises that are clearly implausible and patently false. They cause millions of dollars in consumer injury by offering the false hope of a "fast fix" to people, some of whom are desperate to solve a serious health problem. [Muris TJ. "Do the right thing." Speech to Cable Television Advertising Bureau, New York City, Feb 11, 2003]

Since 1990, the FTC has brought 98 cases against deceptive marketers of weight-loss products. Unfortunately, the U.S. Postal Service, which has jurisdiction over mail-order advertising, has completely ignored the problem during this period.

Portion size can influence caloric intake. Researchers at the Pennsylvania State University have demonstrated that larger portion sizes may induce people to eat more. The study involved 51 adults who -- once a week for four weeks -- were served lunch that included either 500, 625, 750, or 1000 grams of macaroni. Some received the portion on a plate, and some received it in a serving dish and served themselves. The subjects consumed more when offered the largest portion than when offered the smallest portion. The response was not influenced by who determined the amount on the plate or by subject characteristics such as sex, body mass index, or test scores for dietary restraint or disinhibition. The researchers concluded: (a) larger portions led to greater consumption regardless of serving method, and (b) portion size may be relevant to the prevention and treatment of obesity. [Rolls BJ and others. Portion size of food affects energy intake in normal-weight and overweight men and women. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 76:1207-1213, 2002]

Health magazine publisher accused of defrauding Postal Service. Medical World Communications of Jamesburg, New Jersey, and other defendants have been charged with misstating the number of subscribers who had requested its magazines. The periodicals involved include Chiropractic Products, Physical Therapy Products, Plastic Surgery Products, Podiatric Products, Orthodontic Products, Compendium of Continuing Education in Dentistry, Cardiology Review, Family Practice Recertification, Surgical Rounds, Clinical Lab Products, and Resident and Staff Physician. Postal regulations state that if fewer than half of persons receiving a mailed periodical have requested it, the periodical does not qualify for a reduced postage rate. The civil complaint alleges that from 1994 until 2000 the defendants inflated their statistics to avoid paying higher postage rates. The complaint seeks triple the amount of the company's more than $2 million in fraud proceeds plus penalties related to falsifying their records. [Jamesburg trade magazine publisher sued by government for defrauding postal service. USAO News release, Dec 12, 2002] The lawsuit was originally filed under the whistleblower provisions of the federal False Claims Act by Peter F. Sprague, who was Medical World's chief operating officer from 1996 to 1999. These provisions permit private citizens to bring suit on behalf of the United States and share in any recovery obtained by the government [Slade SR. Health care fraud: How far does the False Claims Act reach? Quackwatch, Aug 22, 2000.]

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This page was posted on February 18, 2003.