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La Jolla Cancer Doctor Pleads Guilty to Health Care Fraud

Dr. Joel I. Bernstein already entered a guilty plea to a misdemeanor count of introducing an unapproved drug into interstate commerce.

A prominent La Jolla oncologist and his corporate medical practice admitted importing unapproved foreign cancer drugs at a deep discount, dispensing them to unwitting patients, billing Medicare as if the drugs were legitimate and pocketing the profits, federal officials announced Wednesday.

Dr. Joel I. Bernstein entered a guilty plea to a misdemeanor count of introducing an unapproved drug into interstate commerce, a cancer drug called “Mabthera”—intended for market in Turkey—and administering it to patients.

The approved U.S. drug with the same active ingredient is Rituxan, which is used to treat lymphomas and leukemias such as Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.

Bernstein, 59, entered his plea on Jan. 15 was released pending sentencing, scheduled for April 16.

On Wednesday, the doctor's medical practice, Dr. Joel Bernstein M.D. Inc., pleaded guilty to health care fraud.

According to the plea agreement with the corporation, Bernstein's employees purchased $3.4 million of foreign cancer drugs, knowing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration had not approved them for use in the United States.

From 2007 to 2011, Bernstein's office purchased the foreign drugs for significantly less than market value in the U.S. and then submitted claims to Medicare at the full reimbursement price, according to court papers.

The plea agreement for the corporation calls for $1.7 million in restitution to Medicare, plus forfeiture of $1.2 million in profits.

Authorities said the cases against Bernstein and his practice are the latest example of an alarming nationwide trend that potentially puts patients at risk by exposing them to foreign drugs—particularly injectable chemotherapy drugs—that are not vetted by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

—City News Service

hector a. olloqui January 24, 2013 at 05:51 AM
dr.berstein never thing to hurt any body,hi's a good intencionaly save people . plese let him work with is investigation continue.
Laura Shepard January 24, 2013 at 03:18 PM
I am a patient of Dr. Joel Bernstein. Yes, He did something wrong but he still is an oncology genius, period. His peers have all stated as such over the years. There are several drugs out there not approved or yet approved for in the US that work. The article even states the ONE drug he used still had the same effective ingredient. Again, what he did was legally wrong but the man was an integral part of the team that saved my life from a very serious case of breast cancer. I will defend his medical care without a second thought.
Sherylynne January 24, 2013 at 03:39 PM
And what "restitution" will the unsuspecting CANCER-stricken patients get for placing their trust in this fraud and allowing him, unwittingly, to charge against their medicare benefits?? Have any of those patients deceased while in his "care?" Have any been helped by the illegal drug? Why is it ONLY about the money?? This man did not show one ounce of compassion or concern for those people afflicted with a terminal disease!!! They were only his "mark" and he was only a scam artist.
deborah Taylor January 24, 2013 at 08:31 PM
My LAST visit I complained of back pain and I quote "well don't bend over" he told me I was fine had 80% odds were in my favor "go live your life" Thank God my surgeon ordered a bone scan. In less than 18months my breast C had spread to my spine. I am currently under a different oncologist that I am very happy to be in his care. My husband and I found the staff at Dr Bernsteins to be rude and indifferent. People who choose the medical profession particularly oncology should have compassion and understanding. I witnessed many patients coming and going without so much as a kind hello. Most of the time they were on FB or shopping online. I was there to fight for my life so I had my priorities. inexcusable ethical practices I was up all night wondering what else was going on while I was under his "CARE" I am so disgusted
CathyF. January 24, 2013 at 09:28 PM
My husband is a patient of Dr. Joel Bernstein. Dr. Bernstein is an awesome doctor, who is very compasionate, highly educated and stays current on the best and latest treatments for cancer. He cares deeply for his patients. My husband is here today because of him. There are cancer drugs available that the FDA has not approved, however, they work. He may have done something legally wrong; however, maybe the FDA should get on the ball, make the approval process more efficient, and approve drugs the world is using without Big Pharma dictating which ones will be approved or not. We will continue to stand behind Dr. Bernstein and seek his care.
Newaukumgolfer January 24, 2013 at 10:19 PM
SOUND LIKE HE IS A SAINT?
Laura Shepard January 24, 2013 at 11:36 PM
Not a saint but overall an damned good doctor who is human. I am sorry that Deborah Taylor had that bad experience. He is not the only doctor who has been wrong in their follow up. I am a member of a few support groups and we have those kind of stories about several doctors in San Diego. For many he IS an excellent doctor and I like Cathy F. will stand behind him. In fact I and others will write letters to the court for his defense.
Laura Shepard January 24, 2013 at 11:42 PM
Thank god I was one of his "marks" or possibly I could have had a tomb "mark"er instead. Of course patients have died in his care as have others in other doctors care but the numbers show he has successfully treated far more that have lived. He has been highly respected by not just many of his patients but by his peers for years. I I....THANK GOD everyday that this "scam artist" was a part of saving my life.
Laura Shepard January 24, 2013 at 11:48 PM
I am so sorry for the experience you had. Dr Bernstein has not always been the warm fuzzy type. I can't believe that Regan or Elaine, in particular to ever have been rude and indifferent. Regan held my hand more times than I could count and Regan and the others always made time to follow up with any concerns I ever had. I am glad you found a doctor you are happier with.
Carl January 25, 2013 at 06:18 AM
I can appreciate your affiliation feelings with a doctor that you feel saved your life. But that's not the issue here - it's that this guy lives in the US, works in the US and ... defrauded the US with one of the oldest tricks in the book used with everything from caviar to auto parts: buy the stuff on the black market for cheap then claim its the "real stuff" bought for the official price and pocket the difference. No, he didn't save his patients any money and thus didn't do them a favor. He did it for his own gain. Yeah, maybe the drug is the same but...did he actually do his own efficacy tests for the doses he bought? What were the expiration dates? Did the stuff first spend a year in an overheated werehouse? Would you want(or did you???) this mystery-background stuff injected into your body? My wife was treated by this guy, thankfully without chemo although we discussed it with him as an option. I sure don't remember his saying anything about getting a drug rebate. So ultimately he's just caused all our future medical insurance payments to rise due to fraud. Thanks Ex-doc!
jbondberger January 25, 2013 at 05:10 PM
As his patient, my concern is his failure to inform, discuss and obtain consent from those receiving the drug without FDA approval. The active ingredient was listed on the label. That's great but without FDA approval there is a potential risk that the drug was not stored or transported at the appropriate temperature range for example. I want complete confidence that my physician and his staff have my best interests at heart and now sadly this incident has damaged my trust. Additionally, I assume the oncology nurse participated in ordering the chemo agents. If so, and she knowingly participated in this scheme, then the State Board of Registered Nurses should conduct an investigation too. Thank you for listening.
jbondberger January 25, 2013 at 05:14 PM
From my husband: I can appreciate your affiliation feelings with a doctor that you feel saved your life. But that's not the issue here - it's that this guy lives in the US, works in the US and ... defrauded the US with one of the oldest tricks in the book used with everything from caviar to auto parts: buy the stuff on the black market for cheap then claim its the "real stuff" bought for the official price and pocket the difference. No, he didn't save his patients any money and thus didn't do them a favor. He did it for his own gain. Yeah, maybe the drug is the same but...did he actually do his own efficacy tests for the doses he bought? What were the expiration dates? Did the stuff first spend a year in an overheated werehouse? Would you want(or did you???) this mystery-background stuff injected into your body? My wife was treated by this guy, thankfully without chemo although we discussed it with him as an option. I sure don't remember his saying anything about getting a drug rebate. So ultimately he's just caused all our future medical insurance payments to rise due to fraud. Thanks Ex-doc!
john taylor March 01, 2013 at 01:42 AM
I am so upset that this "doctor" put aside his oath for profit. Those of you that think what he did is forgivable need to wake up. He endangered everyone that took his illegal,possibly counterfeit, drugs. He did not do it for some higher purpose. He did it for profit, cheating the government. He should go to prison. He's a bad man, period. I am so afraid for my wife that he did not perform all that he could to treat her. Most visits, he popped in for a few minutes and made small talk about his dog and never seemed to be all that familiar with her case. A few general questions followed by a few rehearsed answers and off he went. He ought to be ashamed of himself and issue a public apology to all his past patients on his hands and knees begging their forgiveness, followed by a long prison term. Shame on him.
Mary Cloud April 14, 2013 at 11:43 PM
My favorite Dr. In the county. He is full of positive compassion and generous with his patients. The legal system in this country does not always reveal the facts. I have seen him walk out in the waiting room full of patients and kneel down in front of a very I'll woman, cuddle her face in his hands, full of naked love. She responded to his gentle touch. There was no one else in the room. I am a breast cancer survivor and Dread the day when we are reduced to the robotic Drs. Of England's NHS which this Government so clearly wants. Mary Cloud
mescobareck May 18, 2013 at 07:31 PM
Dr. Bernstein is one of the top Oncologists in the country. He is caring, brilliant and compassionate. What he did was wrong but he never put his patients needs or health care over anything. He is the reason my husband and countless others I know are alive today. You can't believe everything you read and I'm sure there are other facts in this case that are not all plainly obvious. I for one will always stand by him as a brilliant and compassionate doctor.
Osmith June 21, 2013 at 05:31 PM
After my husband had cancer surgery for stage II cancer we were referred to Bernstein who told my husband that his cancer would never return and that he didn't need any other treatments or chemo, even though the surgeon indicated my husband was a high risk stage II. Bernstein said no chemo or blood test or CT scan was needed, Bernstein ordered a CEA test 4 months after we had our first appointment with him, than we didn't hear from him for a follow up until I called 3 months later for another CEA test. Both CEA tests were elevated but Bernstein said it didn't mean anything not to worry. Because my husband and I were about to move out of state about 10 months after meeting with Bernstein, we asked Bernstein to order a CT scan because we needed his medical records and because my intuition told me something was wrong. The CT scan revealed that the cancer had progressed to stage IV and my husband and I were devastated. After reading what happened to Bernstein, I am not at all surprised...since my husband had medicare insurance and its been established that Bernstein pleaded guilty to billing medicare fraudulently. People like Laura Shepard, CathyF, MaryCloud and mescobareck need to carefully reconsider their thoughts and listen to people like deborah Taylor and me. My husband's current doctor had said he would have been curable at stage II but not at stage IV. Mescobareck...a caring, brilliant and compassionate oncologist does not do this to helpless patients ..you don't see him for what he REALLY is.
Osmith June 21, 2013 at 06:17 PM
After my husband had surgery for stage II cancer in July, we were referred to Bernstein for treatment. Bernstein told my husband that his cancer would never return that he had nothing to worry about. Bernstein said no chemo, blood test or CT scan was needed even though the cancer surgeon indicated that my husband was a high risk stage II. Four months after we first met with Bernstein, in November, he ordered a CEA test, than we didn't hear from him for over 3 months for a follow up. I called Bernstein's office at the end of February but they didn't return my calls for almost a week, when they finally return my called, another CEA test was done early March. I was concerned that both CEA tests showed an elevated reading but Bernstein said nothing was wrong, it was normal, my husband probably has a little virus or something. At the end of April, we saw Bernstein for the third time and he said everything's fine, nothing needed to be done. We told him that we were moving out of state and requested that he schedule a CT scan so we could take it to the new doctor, and he nervously did so. My intuition told me something was wrong and a week later we found out why. The CT scan revealed the cancer had become Stage IV and is now incurable. My husband and I were devastated. After reading what happened to Bernstein I am not at all surprised......since my husband had medicare insurance and Bernstein plead guilty to billing medicare fraudulently. People like Laura Shepard, CathyF, MaryCloud and mescobareck need to carefully reconsider their thoughts and please listen to people like deborah Taylor and me. To mescobareck...a caring, brilliant and compassionate oncologist does not do this to helpless patients who have place their trust in him with their lives. You don't see him for what he REALLY is.

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