MUSKEGON, Mich. (WOOD) - More than 10 months after a complaint was filed against a Muskegon doctor alleging botched abortions, the chairman of the state Board of Medicine answered with this response: "No investigation needed."
That closed out the complaint filed in 2009 against Dr. Robert L. Alexander, who continued to operate the Woman's Medical Services clinic at 863 E. Apple Avenue until the City of Muskegon recently shut it down over alleged unsafe and unsanitary conditions.
But records obtained by Target 8 raise questions about that ruling and about how the state Board of Medicine -- made up mostly of doctors -- polices the state's doctors.
Then- Board of Medicine Chairman Dr. George Shade Jr., who made the decision not to investigate, has a history with Alexander, Target 8 found.
Alexander lost his medical license in 1990 and spent time in federal prison for having sold illegal prescriptions at a Detroit weight loss clinic in the 1980s.
Shade played a key role in helping Alexander get back his license, working for a time as his supervisor, according to state records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
"He shouldn't have been investigating my case if he was his (Alexander's) mentor," said Sheria McCloud of Muskegon, the patient in the complaint against Alexander. "It should have been somebody else investigating. Why would you investigate my case and you are his mentor?"
Dr. Michael Engel, the former Muskegon OB-GYN who filed the original complaint alleging botched abortions, said he was shocked to learn about the connection between Alexander and Shade.
Both Engel and McCloud said no one from the state contacted them about the complaint, which he filed in June 2009.
"It's a travesty," Engel said in a telephone interview. "The government protects him. That's terrible. This guy knew him, talked to him."
State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker (R-Lawton) called Shade's decision a "clear conflict of interest" that "should never have occurred."
Schuitmaker served on the Board of Medicine before the incident and is now a member of the Senate Health Policy Committee. She said she planned to take Target 8's findings to the committee chairman for a possible hearing.
However, Shade told Target 8 in a telephone interview that the "process was followed."
Complaints against doctors are sent to the 19-member state Board of Medicine, which is made up of doctors and members of the public. The Board of Medicine determines whether complaints should be sent to the state Bureau of Licensing and Regulations (LARA) for investigation.
"We investigate all files," Shade said. "It's not one-sided."
That review, Shade said, includes a statement from the patient. However, the patient told Target 8 that nobody contacted her. Records show no patient statement in the original complaint.
Dr. Engel's complaint alleged Alexander botched an abortion he performed on Sheria McCloud in April 2009. A medical document provided to Target 8 by the patient shows she believed she was 10 weeks pregnant at the time.
"She informed me that Dr. Alexander did do an ultrasound and then, 'stuck something up inside her and moved it around, removing something,'" Dr. Engel wrote in his complaint.
In his complaint, Engel wrote that he spoke to Alexander, who told him he did a "limited ultrasound," that it was difficult to do the ultrasound, "due to the patient being obese."
"He stated he saw a gestational sac and removed that," Engel wrote.
"What he sucked out, who knows," Engel told Target 8. "He could have punctured her placenta. This was an outrageous thing he did."
"When I left, I thought that the process was done, because when I came home, I was bleeding," McCloud told Target 8.
A month later, according to the complaint, McCloud felt pain and movement in her abdomen, sending her to the ER. An ultrasound found she was 30 weeks pregnant. She eventually gave birth to Jeremiah, a healthy boy who is now 3 years old.
Also in his complaint, Engel alleged that Alexander had perforated a second patient's uterus during an abortion. It "rendered the patient unable to walk for a month due to the pain," he wrote.
"She could have bled to death," Engel told Target 8.
In Muskegon County court records, Target 8 found allegations of a third botched abortion: that Alexander performed an abortion on a woman who hours later delivered a stillborn baby missing the skull, brain and other body parts. However, this allegation was not part of the state complaint against Alexander.
Engel told Target 8 he treated about 10 of Alexander's patients after abortions over about six years for either bleeding or infection.
Engel, now a doctor at a hospital in Elkhart, Ind., said his complaint was not about whether abortion is right or wrong, though he describes himself as pro-life.
"It's wrong what he does to women," he said. "I'm not talking the unborn. I'm talking about women."
Shade insisted the complaint was filed by a patient, not by a doctor, though records show otherwise.
In his one-page response to the complaint,
Shade wrote: "Appropriate evaluation of the patient was performed. She was outside the legal limit for voluntary termination of pregnancy and was informed of such by the licensee (Alexander). Patient was refunded her payment. No breach of standard of care, no fraud, no unethical practice."
But the doctor who filed the complaint and the patient said they don't understand how Shade reached that conclusion.
Court records show Alexander told an attorney he couldn't find McCloud's medical records in September 2009, several months after the complaint was filed.
McCloud said she kept all her records from Alexander's clinic, but nobody asked for them.
Engel said he expected the state to investigate his complaint, "which would entail talking to him (Alexander), going to his place of business, talking to me, talking to the patient, doing basic due diligence, which they didn't do."
The state responded to his complaint 10 months later in May 2010, Engel said, when it wrote that a "member" of the Board of Medicine, Dr. Shade, had determined there was "insufficient basis to authorize investigation of your allegation."
The patient said the doctor never gave her a refund. She said she didn't know the complaint had been dismissed until Target 8 told her.
"To this day, I thought the case was still open," McCloud said. "Nobody ever sent me no letter or nothing."
"That's what she says," said Shade, insisting the state notified the patient. "I know the process. I was on the Board of Medicine for eight years."
A spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA), which oversees health professionals, said her agency was not aware of any potential conflict of interest. LARA investigates complaints against doctors only if authorized by the Board of Medicine.
"We have no way of knowing if there was a conflict of interest, or if there was any relationship between the two," spokeswoman Jeannie Vogel said.
Sherri Johnson, manager of the Allegation Section of the Health Investigation Division, said she had "no knowledge" of a possible conflict of interest.
It was Johnson who signed the letter saying that the state wouldn't investigate the complaint based on Shade's findings. She said the state cannot override the Board of Medicine.
Shade's association with Alexander dates back at least 16 years.
The state revoked Alexander's license in 1990 after he was convicted in federal court for writing prescriptions for controlled substances, including Valium and Preludin, to patients he never saw. The patients included undercover FBI agents.
A few years later, after his release from federal prison, Alexander was trying to get his license back. Shade wrote a letter on Alexander's behalf. Alexander used it as "Exhibit A-1" in a hearing before the licensing board.
Before getting his "unlimited" license, Alexander worked in a "training program" under Dr. Shade's supervision at Detroit Riverview Hospital, records show.
Shade told Target 8 he helped Alexander at the request of the Michigan State Medical Society, "which thought he was treated unjustly. They wanted to correct what they thought was a major injustice done to him."
"I was in the field of obstetrics and gynecology," he said. "They brought the file to me. They wanted to see if I could help him get re-acclimated."
Shade is a long-time OB-GYN who served as senior vice president and chief quality officer at Detroit Medical Center and taught at Wayne State University School of Medicine. In October, he was named chief medical officer at St. Vincent Indianapolis Hospital.
He told Target 8 he hasn't "kept in touch with Dr. Alexander" and didn't know that the City of Muskegon had shut down his clinic.
When pushed about the potential conflict of interest, Shade responded: "It's a very detailed process to investigate, and that process was followed. This conversation is over."
As for Alexander, he has told Target 8 he had no plans to re-open the Muskegon clinic and was not working.
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