by Tim Farley.
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of exclusive investigative stories that focus on Dr. Steven Anagnost and his battle to retain his medical license while also trying to defend himself against allegations from the Oklahoma Medical Licensure Board, competing physicians and a group of medical malpractice attorneys in Tulsa.
OKLAHOMA CITY — Members of the Oklahoma Medical Licensure Board made several disparaging comments about State Rep. Richard Morrissette after he criticized their prosecution of Tulsa spine surgeon Steve Anagnost last year, according to internal agency emails obtained by Red Dirt Report.
In October 2013, Morrissette issued a press release calling for more oversight of non-appropriated state agencies such as the medical board, which receives its funding directly from physicians. Morrissette directly challenged the state nursing board and the medical board, alleging they have “become too powerful, are wasting money, abusing Oklahoma citizens and perhaps violating the law.”
In the same press release, Morrissette alleged a “lack of attention” may have contributed to a prolonged and “dubious campaign” by the medical licensing board against Anagnost.
“That case against Dr. Steven Anagnost was hurriedly ended in September (2013) after the physician sued the board for various violations of his rights,” Morrissette said.
But still, the damage already had been done. Numerous lawsuits had been filed against Anagnost, most of them initiated by medical malpractice attorneys directly associated with the medical board. In addition, the legal expenses Anagnost incurred to defend the lawsuits left him financially and professionally ruined.
The lawmaker noted that earlier in 2013 several Oklahoma Supreme Court justices took issue with the medical board’s assertion of irregularities against the surgeon with one justice calling the board’s treatment within the investigation as “unseemly.”
An email with two misspelled words from board member Andy Sullivan to medical board Executive Director Lyle Kelsey epitomized the emotions within the agency.
“It mad (sp) me mad as a wet hen,” Sullivan wrote on Oct. 23, 2013, referring to Morrissette’s public comments. “We work hard to TRY to keep the public safe and you run an efficient board that is self-supporting. Taking cheap shots from a sleeve (sp) who is on the take from someone should not have to be tolerated. It’s a shame we can’t tell it like it is.”
Morrissette joked that Sullivan probably intended to call him “a sleaze, not a sleeve.”
Turning more serious, Morrissette said the email from Sullivan “infers or directly implies I’m corrupt. On the take from what? I take great exception to that. Somebody has some explaining to do.”
An earlier email from Sullivan to Kelsey shows the board member was willing to request favors from politicos who might be able to quiet Morrissette’s public comments.
“We have to believe that right will triumph over evil,” he wrote. “We just may have to help it along.
Hopefully (board’s legal counsel) John (Wiggins) can straighten it out. If not we may have to reach out to some friends. I’m ready to help in any way I can.”
On Oct. 22, 2013, board member Chuck Skillings wrote in an email to Kelsey, “I talked with my lobbyist who knows this guy (Morrissette) quite well and his bark is much worse than his bite.”
When shown the internal emails, Morrissette said medical board members, Kelsey and others will have a chance to explain their actions and words during a Jan. 15 hearing at the State Capitol. Morrissette scheduled the hearing after receiving citizen complaints and after reviewing a Red Dirt Report investigation that revealed the medical board’s five-year persecution of Anagnost.
“I do not plan on stopping the hearing until we have heard from everyone who wants to make a comment,” the lawmaker said, making assurances that legislation would be drafted to deal with the problems posed by non-appropriated agencies and their apparent lack of oversight.
Kelsey did not return phone calls for comment in connection with this story.
Morrissette said he’s disturbed that the medical board’s aim was to catch Anagnost “off guard” during an emergency hearing held June 18, 2010.
A June 20, 2010 memo obtained by Red Dirt Report shows the board’s medical advisor, Dr. Eric Frische, tried to explain to board members why the complaint against Anagnost was dismissed the day of the emergency hearing.
“I think we felt that we wanted to catch him off guard but clearly he wasn’t,” Frische wrote. “In future cases like this one, we might consider an interview with multiple interviewers and do so on the record and probably in our Board office where we can record the interview. That should be adequate to catch doctors off guard.”
Still, Anagnost’s case remained open and on the board’s monthly docket, allowing public speculation that the doctor’s practice remained under scrutiny. In addition, the lawsuits filed against Anagnost by medical malpractice attorneys who had direct connections to the medical board were piling up.
“Are they there to catch doctors off guard or do fair and impartial hearings?” Morrissette asked. “This is nothing but a Star Chamber of Horrors.”
Reforming the way non-appropriated agencies conduct business should be a top priority for the Oklahoma Legislature and Gov. Mary Fallin, Morrissette said.
“These professionals who depend on a license for their livelihood need to feel the processes are fair to them and their licenses are being dealt with in a fair and constitutionally-protected manner. I suspect that isn’t the case today,” he said. “If the boards won’t do it, we need to.”
Morrissette also questioned the lack of action by the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office, which is typically the legal counsel for the boards.
“That should be extremely troubling,” he said. “The silence is deafening.”
Anagnost had made a remarkable name for himself as a top-notch spinal surgeon using a procedure known as Minimally Invasive Surgery (MIS). His patients were enjoying the results and were healing faster with less hospital time. But his Tulsa competitors, who were using more traditional surgical techniques, were feeling the pinch as more and more patients began going to Anagnost to correct their health problems.
That’s when a group of surgeons, organized under the umbrella of Oklahoma Spine and Brain Institute (OSBI), approached Anagnost about investing in their privately-owned Tulsa Spine & Specialty Hospital.
He politely declined the 2005 offer, which for him, was the beginning of a long, tragic ordeal.
“Shortly after, a jihad started to get rid of me,” said Anagnost, considered one of the top three spinal surgeons in a city of about 44. “It’s the oldest reason in the book – greed. I was doing a better job, my practice was thriving and I was charging less. I didn’t trust these guys to go into business with them.”
In October 2009, surgeons from OSBI began making unsubstantiated verbal and written complaints against Anagnost to the Oklahoma Medical Licensure Board, according to a lawsuit filed in Oklahoma County by Anagnost against several defendants, including some of his former competitors.
The complaints, brought by competing surgeons, centered on allegations of fraudulent billing and not performing the surgeries Anagnost had promised his patients.
The clandestine attacks, secret emails and the alleged cover-up in the Anagnost case were far from over.
“Every person, from the plaintiffs’ attorneys and the competing doctors, were making money at my expense,” Anagnost said. “There were complaints coming from the medical malpractice attorneys with and without patient knowledge.”
After nearly five years of being pursued and persecuted by the medical board and its investigators, Anagnost filed a lawsuit against the agency in July 2013. The lawsuit was settled in September 2013.
However, Anagnost and his legal team soon learned the settlement was tainted after discovering the medical board and its executive director had lied on several occasions about sharing information with the medical malpractice attorneys, which included former medical board member Gary Brooks and former board prosecutor Randy Sullivan. That revelation sparked Anagnost’s most recent lawsuit, which is pending in Oklahoma County District Court.
The lawsuit was amended Dec. 12, 2014, to include Brooks and Sullivan as defendants.
“The information currently known that was unknown to Dr. Anagnost at the time he signed the release reveals the Board did not conduct (in appearance or in fact) a fair and impartial investigation, conspired with his competitors to manufacture claims against him, did not have credible evidence to supports its claims against him, did not preclude or protect him from obvious conflicts of interest of its Board members or specially retained prosecutors and biased its Board Members with improper disclosure of staff and investigatory communications,” the lawsuit states.