Louisiana fund paid 5 malpractice claims totaling $4.3 million for a single physician last year

Keith Chung, a Lake Charles physician, is first to trigger state’s malpractice reporting law

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A Lake Charles doctor had so many malpractice claims settled against him in 2020 that — for the first time ever — he triggered a mandatory report to be sent to the Louisiana Legislature. One of the five malpractice cases settled against Dr. Keith Chung last year resulted in the death of a patient. More than $4.3 million in claims were paid out against the doctor by the Louisiana Patient’s Compensation Fund Oversight Board in 2020.

Another seven open claims have been filed against Dr. Chung, a general surgeon who specializes in weight loss surgery. Dr. Chung did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Since 2015, the Patient’s Compensation Fund has been required by law to send a report to the committees on Health and Welfare in the Louisiana House and Senate only if a doctor has five or more paid claims against them in one year. A January report about Dr. Chung marks the first time that notification has been triggered, said Ken Schnauder, the executive director of the Patient’s Compensation Fund Oversight Board. Fewer than 20% of malpractice claims are settled, Schnauder said.

The report was discussed in an April 14 hearing of the Louisiana Senate Health and Welfare Committee. The Illuminator submitted a public record request to the Secretary of the Senate for the report. The report was released on Monday.

The two-page report lists the payment date, payment amount and the allegations for the malpractice claim. Four are listed as “surgical complications.” The fifth is listed as “surgical complications/death.” Despite the multiple malpractice claims, a search of Dr. Chung’s name on the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners license verification website reveals that his license is active and that he has no past or current disciplinary action against him.

The state Patient’s Compensation Fund Oversight Board is funded by premiums from more than 23,000 health care providers, according to the fund’s 2020 annual report. Doctors who enroll in the fund must pay the first $100,000 of each malpractice claim through an insurance company or as a self-insured provider. In 2019, 310 claims were paid by the fund for an average of $341,024, far less than the average of $869,438 per claim paid out against Dr. Chung last year.

The Board of Medical Examiners is now investigating Dr. Chung, but that board was not made aware of the malpractice claims until they were paid out, said Sen. Fred Mills Jr. (R-Parks) at a committee hearing. “It seemed like a serious disconnect to us that we could have this amount of paid medical malpractice claims with more pending and as far as the public knows you’re active and in good standing,” he said.

Medical licensing boards in 31 other states make malpractice information available to the public, Mills said. The senator said he wanted to bring a bill requiring medical malpractice information to be made public before the Legislature this year, but couldn’t because during fiscal sessions, lawmakers can only submit five bills for consideration, and he had reached his limit.

The surgeries that led to the 2020 settlements against Dr. Chung date as far back as 2012. But the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners was not made aware of any case until several months after its settlement was paid, according to a letter from the board. Legislation passed in 2018 limits how the board of medical examiners can open an investigation into a doctor, said Dr. Vincent Cullotta, the executive director of the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners. None of the plaintiffs involved in the five malpractice settlements complained to the board, which would have triggered an investigation, Dr. Cullotta said.

Sen. Jay Luneau (D-Alexandria) said waiting until a malpractice claim is settled before notifying the board of medical examiners means that patients go years without knowing about what has happened to other patients who saw their doctor. By contrast, he said, if a lawyer is arrested the Louisiana Attorney Disciplinary Board is automatically notified.

The fact that Dr. Chung had five medical malpractice claims paid out against him in a single year is a sign that there are likely more claims out there, Luneau said. “That’s just astronomical,” he said. “That person needs to be looked at on an emergency basis because there’s problems there.”

In 2016, Dr. Chung removed a patient’s gallbladder at CHRISTUS Ochsner Lake Area Hospital, in Lake Charles. According to a 2019 petition for damages filed with the 14th Judicial District Court  in Calcasieu Parish, during the surgery, Dr. Chung punctured the patient’s gastrointestinal tract, which resulted in an infection. Dr. Chung performed further surgeries in an attempt to repair the damage, but the patient’s condition worsened and she had to be transferred to Ochsner Medical Center for treatment.

CHRISTUS Ochsner Lake Area Hospital knew that Dr. Chung had multiple malpractice claims against him, but failed to take action against him, according to the petition. The patient was hospitalized for months and, at the time of the lawsuit, continued to suffer from serious injuries as a result of the botched surgery, the suit says. The Patient’s Compensation Fund and the hospital both paid portions of a settlement against the doctor. But Dr. Chung still owed the patient $81,000 as of February 2020, according to court documents.

CHRISTUS Ochsner Lake Area Hospital did not respond to questions about Dr. Chung, including whether he still performs surgeries at the hospital. A story on the hospital’s website advertises a positive testimonial from a patient who received weight loss surgery from Dr. Chung.

Luneau said the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare will continue to look into the issue of transparency in medical malpractice claims. The public should be aware of problem doctors earlier, “instead of late in the process when all the harm is done,” he said.