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NJ Board of Medical Examiners: Five-Year Suspension of Former Prison Doctor for “Gross Negligence” for Contributing to 2009 Death of Prison Inmate

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NEWARK – The State Board of Medical Examiners (BME) has imposed a five year license suspension and $60,000 in civil penalties on a former prison doctor whose “gross negligence” contributed to the death of an inmate under his care while he was the Medical Director at Northern State Prison in Newark in 2009.

 

In its Final Decision and Order, the BME concluded that Dr. John L. Hochberg’s failure to provide potentially lifesaving intervention for the inmate, who was critically ill, constituted a breach of even the most minimal standards of care. The BME found that Hochberg also engaged in repeated acts of gross negligence, malpractice, and/or professional misconduct in the care of four other patients he treated for chronic pain at his private clinic, Ortho Neuro Rehab Associates in South Amboy, from 1984 to 2003.

 

“The suspension imposed on Dr. Hochberg by the Board of Medical Examiners reflects the egregious nature of his actions, as well as the Board’s commitment to protecting the public,” said Steve Lee, Director of the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs. “Even after his suspension period is up, Dr. Hochberg will not be permitted to resume the practice of medicine until he demonstrates he is competent to do so.”

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Under the terms of Hochberg’s five-year suspension, the first two years will be “active” in which he will be barred from practice. The remaining three years could be stayed and served as a period of probation provided the 64-year-old Morganville resident is able to demonstrate his fitness and competency to practice to the Board. Before being allowed to resume practice, Hochberg must also demonstrate successful completion of a skills assessment in areas that include prescription of Controlled Dangerous Substances (CDS), and must complete a course in medical record keeping.

 

The BME’s disciplinary action against Hochberg followed its review of an Initial Decision issued after trial at the Office of Administrative Law, in which a six-month suspension and $50,000 civil penalty had been recommended for Hochberg for “multiple and repeated acts of negligence and malpractice, in some instances amounting to gross negligence and gross malpractice” with regard to the five patents. The BME modified that recommendation, finding it “insufficient” to address Hochberg’s record that indicates “a clear pattern, spanning more than ten years, of failure to recognize and aggressively treat medical issues” and of poor recordkeeping.

 

According to documents in the case, Hochberg was an employee of University Correctional Health Care (UCHC), a firm contracted by the state to provide medical care services at correctional facilities. As an employee of UCHC, Hochberg was assigned as Medical Director at Northern State Prison in October, 2008, where he earned $183,750. Shortly after being assigned to the prison, Hochberg began treating a 47-year-old inmate with injections for Hepatitis C. A month into the treatment, the inmate’s hemoglobin levels began to drop below normal levels and he began to complain of dizziness and flu-like symptoms. Over the course of the next two months, the inmate’s hemoglobin levels continued to drop to dangerous levels, and during the week of January 15, 2008, the inmate complained he was shaky, kept falling, had muscle weakness, and was confused as to time of day.

 

On Thursday, January 20, the inmate fell and sustained a laceration and bruises on his face. Hochberg examined the inmate and found him to be stable and in no distress, but advised the statewide medical director that if the inmate’s hemoglobin levels continued to drop and he became “symptomatic” he might need a transfusion over the weekend. Rather than taking steps to admit the inmate to the hospital for a transfusion, the doctor waited to see if the inmate became symptomatic. Hochberg examined the inmate on January 23, but did not reflect in patient notes anything about his deteriorating condition. The inmate died on January 24. Hochberg was terminated from his position at the prison three weeks later.

 

“It is inconceivable to this Board that an individual with a hemoglobin level of 4.3 would not be symptomatic,” the BME stated in its Final Order. “In fact, the patient record indicates that [the inmate] was symptomatic and experiencing syncope, disorientation, and muscle weakness. We concur with the State’s expert that the most minimal standard of care would require checking the stool for blood, evaluation by a neurologist and a hematologist, and a CT scan. [Hochberg] did not even have these simple tests performed.”

 

With regard to the four other patients Hochberg treated for chronic pain while in private practice, the BME found that he violated the standards of care for one or more of them by:

 

·         Failing to maintain proper patient records.

·         Prescribing powerful narcotics without conducting necessary medical testing and physical evaluations.

·         Treating the patient for chronic pain without considering other medical or psychological issues affecting the patient.

·         Embarking on a treatment plan without consulting with other treating physicians, or considering the medications they were prescribing to his patient.

·         Failing to refer patients to pain management specialists or consider alternative plans of care when long-term narcotic treatment did not appear to be working. 

 

This investigation was conducted by the Enforcement Bureau of the Division of Consumer Affairs.

Deputy Attorney General Kathy Stroh Mendoza from the Division of Law represented the State in this matter.

Stephen A. Gravatt, Esq. represented Hochberg in this matter.

Patients who believe that they have been treated by a licensed health care professional in an inappropriate manner can file an online complaint with the State Division of Consumer Affairs by visiting its website or by calling 1-800-242-5846(toll free within New Jersey) or 973-504- 6200.

 

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