Doctor, surgical funder admit to roles in transvaginal mesh fraud

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REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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  • Doctor admits to plot to remove mesh from women after settlements in mesh litigation
  • Surgical funder also pleads guilty

(Reuters) - A Florida doctor admitted Friday to his role in a plot to convince women to have unnecessary surgeries to remove their transvaginal mesh implants in an effort to get a cut of settlement funds paid by the mesh manufacturers.

Dr. Christopher Walker, a urogynecologist from Windermere, Florida, pleaded guilty to two charges at a hearing before U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie in Brooklyn.

Walker, who was charged alongside Detroit-based surgical funding consultant Wesley Barber in 2019, admitted to paying Barber bribes to be referred women with transvaginal mesh implants so he could operate on them.

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Barber pleaded guilty to charges of wire fraud at a separate hearing on Tuesday.

In a statement, Walker’s attorney, Jodi Avergun of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft, said her client has made a career out of helping women, including by removing defective vaginal mesh implants.

“He has accepted responsibility for his actions in order to move forward and resume his career caring for patients,” Avergun said.

Barber’s attorney, Joseph "Trey" Flynn of NeJame Law, said his client recognized his fault in the situation. But Flynn also pushed back on the idea that the surgeries were unnecessary, calling the mesh “a very dangerous product.”

Prosecutors said the scheme followed the proliferation of litigation over the mesh implants, which were used to repair tissue or provide support for women with pelvic organ prolapse until the U.S. Food and Drug Administration stopped their sale in 2019. Lawsuits over the products claimed they caused pain, bleeding and other injuries. A multidistrict litigation was created in 2012.

Manufacturers such as Boston Scientific and Johnson & Johnson reached agreements to settle some of the litigation. As part of some settlement agreements, women who had surgery to remove the mesh were entitled to larger payouts than those who still had it implanted, according to the indictment.

Prosecutors described a conspiracy predicated on identifying women with the mesh and then convincing them to get it surgically removed, often through misleading claims about the risks it posed. The women would travel to a surgeon and have the operation, which was initially paid for by a loan from a surgical funding company and would typically require repayment with high interest rates if the woman received a settlement from the mesh’s maker, according to the indictment.

Barber referred patients and coordinated their surgeries, according to the indictment. Once the patients were referred to Walker, he would personally operate on some of them to remove the mesh, prosecutors said.

Barber is scheduled for sentencing on Dec. 2. Walker’s sentencing is set for Jan. 20.

Walker faces up to 10 years in prison, while Barber could receive up to five. Walker will forfeit approximately $800,000, and Barber will forfeit approximately $1.1 million, according to prosecutors.

The case is USA v. Barber et al, case number 1:19-cr-00239 in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

For Walker: Jodi Avergun of Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft

For Barber: Joseph "Trey" Flynn of NeJame Law

For the government: Assistant United States Attorneys Elizabeth Geddes and Sarah Evans and Trial Attorney Andrew Estes of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section

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