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Doctor Likely To Seek Court-Appointed Attorney Mark Frazier Pleads Innocent To Charges Of Defrauding Medicare

Dr. Mark Frazier, who helped perform the first kidney transplant in Spokane, will probably ask taxpayers to pay for a lawyer to defend against criminal charges of Medicare fraud.

In a quiet voice, Frazier pleaded innocent Friday to 14 federal counts of mail fraud, false statements and false claims. Each count is punishable by a $250,000 fine and up to five years in prison.

Lawyer Irwin Schwartz represented Frazier. Schwartz has worked with him since a civil lawsuit was filed against Frazier and three other doctors in his former firm, Northwest Nephrology Associates.

Schwartz said the cost might be too high for Frazier to pay for his own lawyer. A decision on whether Frazier will ask for a court-appointed lawyer will be made next week. “It would be sad for both of us,” Schwartz said. “I’ve known Mark now for 2-1/2 years. I’m very fond of him. I would prefer to continue to be involved, but there’s a limit to what I can do without resources.”

Frazier, 51, helped start Northwest Nephrology in 1984. He was a powerhouse of a doctor accused of masterminding a scheme to defraud Medicare, Medicaid and private insurance companies of at least $1.5 million over five years.

Frazier is accused of billing insurers for a higher level of inpatient care than patients needed for two major types of kidney dialysis.

The federal investigation lasted more than two years and involved almost half the kidney doctors in town.

Now, Frazier lives with his parents in Omaha, Neb. He told the state earlier this month that he will no longer practice medicine in Washington.

When U.S. Magistrate Judge Cynthia Imbrogno asked if Frazier had any problems that might prevent him understanding the charges, he said he was hard of hearing.

Schwartz leaned over and whispered in Frazier’s ear.

“Oh. And I am currently under psychiatric treatment,” Frazier said.

Frazier will go back to the C.F. Menninger Memorial Hospital in mid-April for two weeks. He started inpatient treatment there last July, after being accused of threatening the life of another Spokane kidney doctor.

Frazier’s former firm, Northwest Nephrology, also faces a six-count indictment accusing the company of mail fraud.

None of the other group doctors - Mary Anne McDonald, Leo Obermiller and Katherine Tuttle - face criminal charges. But they are named in a civil whistle-blower lawsuit unsealed by the federal government in January.

An amended complaint is expected to be filed soon, removing Tuttle and possibly others as defendants.

McDonald and Obermiller now run Nephrology Consultants in Spokane. Tuttle is the director of research at The Heart Institute.

Frazier sued McDonald, Obermiller and both nephrology companies last week. He wants a preliminary injunction to prevent the two doctors from entering a guilty plea to the federal charges of fraud on behalf of Northwest Nephrology.

On March 20, the three doctors had a telephone conference. McDonald and Obermiller said they wanted the corporation to plead guilty to one felony count of mail fraud.

A hearing will be conducted April 9 on Frazier’s request for an injunction.

“Our position in filing the papers is that in order for the corporation to enter a plea of guilty, there has to be unanimity amongst the shareholders, according to the bylaws,” said John T. John, a lawyer representing Frazier specifically on the Superior Court lawsuit.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo