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When a doctor threatened to sue this California reporter, he did what journalists do best Date: 02/22/16

Ron Shinkman

By Ron Shinkman

“Hello, this is Dr. Martello. Where can I serve you papers?”

When I received that phone call from Jeannette Martello, M.D., in March 2012, I was entering my 25th year as a practicing journalist. I had gotten my share of irate calls and letters from individuals or organizations displeased with my reporting. However, this was the first time someone had told me they were going to sue. I certainly never expected such a threat to be delivered in a bright and chipper tone.

Moreover, this threat was over a brief, just-the-facts story on how Martello, a plastic surgeon, had been enjoined from the California Department of Managed Health Care (DMHC) from balance-billing her patients.

I am about the only journalist who covers the DMHC, one of two insurance regulators in California. The agency's disciplinary matters are public and posted to its website. They often contain interesting nuggets about health insurers that have been fined or agents who have lost their licenses due to fraud or other misconduct. But rarely does the DMHC ever take action against an individual physician.

I gave Martello the business address for Payers & Providers, the small group of regional health care business publications I founded in 2009. She quickly hung up.

Understandably, I was nervous for the next few days. But I also had an instructive year in law school in my past, and I knew Martello (her surname is the Italian word for “hammer”) would never have any standing for a lawsuit.

After the initial wariness eased, I began digging into her background. And despite the fact that Martello held a law degree along with her medical degree, I discovered that lack of legal merit never stopped her from serving papers.

I learned that she had filed about 70 lawsuits in Los Angeles County, in superior and small claims court. I began contacting the respondents to these suits. It turned out virtually all of them were former patients or parents of her patients. They all told me similar stories: They or a loved one would suffer an injury and rush to the local hospital emergency room. Martello would provide reconstructive services, but only after having them sign a waiver stating that they would pay all her costs directly, even if they had insurance. In California, such a contract for an insured patient receiving emergency services is illegal and unenforceable.

Although I write for a variety of publications, I am my own editor at Payers & Providers. But after nearly 20 years of reporting on health care business and policy, I knew a doctor who sues her own patients was a big story. I decided it would make a good “white paper” – a longer-take article that investigates some underreported aspect of health care delivery. I delved into court records, lien records and tried to locate pretty much every person named.

After about six weeks of reporting, I came across some of the most poignant stories I had ever encountered as a journalist. There was Joseph Benincasa, who had injured his finger while he was in law school and uninsured. Martello had sued Benincasa while he was still under her care and after he had offered to pay off his bill in installments. Even after his debt was paid off, Martello placed a lien on his home. Benincasa told me he would have preferred to have had his finger amputated.

There was Joseph Avina, a customer service representative who had been assaulted outside a nightclub. He was sued even though he had insurance. He was still recovering from his injuries and was unable to show up for court, thereby losing his lawsuit by default. That later made it more difficult to buy his own home.

There was Nancy Hauser, whose daughter, Margo Thornhill, had seen Martello for treatment. Martello sued both Hauser and Thornhill, and placed liens on Hauser's home in multiple jurisdictions.

There was Gustavo Landgrebe, who offered to pay his bill in installments, was sued, and then filed for bankruptcy.

There was the teenager injured in a bicycle accident. I found his unredacted medical records in the lawsuit Martello filed against the teen.

There were also the hospitals that continued to grant Martello privileges and did little to stop her tactics. Officials at those facilities all but shrugged when I asked about her conduct.

After I published my story (PDF) on May 31, 2012, it generated a strong reception. In August, Anna Gorman, who was then a reporter at the Los Angeles Times wrote about Martello in a story that ran on page one. Also, my story was a finalist that year for the annual National Institute for Health Care Management Foundation awards.

The one result that did not occur from my work was an actual lawsuit from Martello.

But Martello’s story doesn’t end there. She remains embroiled in other legal action and the California Medical Board put her on probation for balance billing her patients. She also lost a lawsuit filed by the DMHC and was ordered to pay the agency – and by extension, her patients – more than $562,000. In a suit she filed against the DMHC over that matter, she is challenging its legal authority and ia representing herself.

So here’s my advice to colleagues: If someone cheerfully calls to say you’re about to be sued, check it out. You might be pleased with the results.

Ron Shinkman (@PayersProviders) is the editor and publisher of Payers & Providers, a Los Angeles-based newsletter on the health care industry.