La Jolla cancer doc pleads guilty to Medicare fraud

SAN DIEGO — 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.

Today, 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 they had not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration 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.

7 comments

  • hrd

    Unbelievable!!!. I am a physician and my mother is being treated by him. I wonder if her Chemo is FDA approved or from turkey?

    • Gretchen

      I am a retired RN educator, & I am in disbelief about this. How is your mother doing? What is happening with his practice? Is he still in his office, or is someone covering for him? It is unbelievable that this is only a misdemeanor, & his only punishment is likely to be forfeiture of $$ for both of his charges (including Medicare fraud). No mention of nurses in the practice who knew about it. If so, I hope they are charged also.
      Hoping for the best with you mother, & let me know if I can help in any way.
      Gretchen Carter, RN, BSN, MSN

  • Ronny

    MabThera is the European name for Rituxan. It's the same drug marketed by Roche in Europe and Genentech/Roche in the USA. The article says Bernstein purchased $3.4 million in foreign cancer drugs (plural) so who knows what else he was importing? How much money is enough money? Greed in medicine is not a good thing….

  • drukpa Sinagpore

    The medicine is not registered by the association of food and drugs. Am I right? Its not an amusement situation from the patients that they took up drugs and there's a possibility to be poisoned which they didn't care. However the doctor was guilty of a medicare fraud for an unapproved drug that they have no concern for the patients.

  • Rachel

    Does anyone know of a person who is ill or has died or has had liver problems or become very ill while receiving Rituxan (Mabthera) from Dr. Joel Bernstein.__

  • Rachel Carter

    Rachell Carter · San Diego, United States

    Brilliant or not brilliant, should not be part of a person’s response to an illegal activity. Most successful thieves are brilliant in their own line of work. The point here is that Dr. Joel Bernstein purchased prescription drug products, such as injectable cancer medication from foreign or unlicensed suppliers which puts patients at risk of exposure to drugs that may be fake, contaminated, improperly stored and transported, ineffective, and dangerous.
    Purchasing unapproved prescription drugs from foreign sources not only violates the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is illegal, but the most important reason is that it puts patients at risk. Sighting the low payment of Medicare as justivacation to do this unlawful act is disgusting.
    Business close all the time because of the economy the price of gas is too high, the wholesaler wants inflated prices and etc., causing products to be out of the reach of customers. Does this justify the business owner selling inferior goods. especially ones that could cause death.
    Dr. Bernstein’s patients came to him to be cured of a killing disease, do we, or will we ever know how many died because they received this illegal drug from him?

    Reply ·

    · 17 hours ago

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    Stanley Bernstein

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