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How doctors buy their way out of trouble

Medical practitioners and providers paid $26.8 billion over the past decade to settle federal allegations including fraud, bribery, and patient harm, a Reuters investigation found. Paying up means staying in business and, for some, avoiding prison. U.S. prosecutors helped them do it.

hen federal enforcers alleged in 2015 that New York surgeon Feng Qin had performed scores of medically unnecessary cardiac procedures on elderly patients, they decided not to pursue a time-consuming criminal case.

Instead, prosecutors chose an easier, swifter legal strategy: a civil suit. Qin agreed to pay $150,000 in a negotiated settlement and walked free to perform more cardiac surgeries at his new solo practice in lower Manhattan.

Qin faced no judge or jury. He did not admit to wrongdoing. He maintained his license to practice. What’s more, neither Qin nor government officials were required to notify patients who purportedly were subjected to vascular surgical procedures they didn’t need. Those included fistulagrams to spot issues like narrowed blood vessels or clots, and angioplasties to open clogged coronary arteries.

Within months of the settlement, a registered nurse working for Qin at his Manhattan practice alerted authorities that something seemed amiss. The nurse, who ultimately turned whistleblower, alleged to federal prosecutors that the surgeon was performing unnecessary procedures on patients, mostly elderly Asian and Black immigrants whose care was covered by the public programs Medicare or Medicaid.

Prosecutors indicted Qin in 2018 on a felony count of fraud, which carried a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison. But in 2021, in a deal brokered behind closed doors, prosecutors dropped that charge in favor of yet another civil settlement, court records detailing that agreement show.

Once again, Qin kept his New York license to practice with no restrictions; a restricted license is one of the few ways the public can learn that a doctor has been disciplined for bad behavior. Qin agreed to pay a total of $800,000 in annual installments ending in December 2025, deposited with the U.S. Department of the Treasury. As an added penalty, he was banned from billing public health programs until February 2025.