by Marshall Allen, ProPublica
The Illinois Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit today accusing the owner and manager of Heart Check America, a medical imaging company, of pressuring patients into purchasing pricey body scans that many did not need.
Last month, ProPublica published an investigation of Heart Check America, describing its marketing and sales techniques. In our story, medical experts called the company’s tactics unethical and said its scans were inappropriate for many patients, exposing them to unnecessary expense and treatment. Health regulators in Colorado and Nevada have cited the company for performing medical scans without doctors’ orders.
Now Illinois officials say Sheila Haddad and her son, David Haddad, the owner and manager of the company, used “unfair and deceptive business practices” to manipulate consumers, possibly numbering in the thousands, into 10-year screening contracts costing up to $7,000, plus additional annual dues.
Heart Check America officials have not yet responded to calls and emails asking for comment on the lawsuit. In our previous story, David Haddad acknowledged that the company had made some missteps, but said the company was taking steps to bring all of its centers into compliance with government standards.
He defended the value of the company’s services, saying its scans gave patients peace of mind and had even saved lives. “People come back and say ‘Thank you, my wife will be [alive] because we found this’,” Haddad said. “I made my mom and sister go. People hug and kiss us goodbye in these clinics.”
The Attorney General’s complaint, filed in state court in Chicago, alleges a list of problems with the Heart Check America’s tactics:
- Multiple scans may not be medically appropriate and sales were based on a false premise that early detection of disease always leads to better outcomes.
- The people selling the scans were not medically trained and no medical provider evaluated patients before they received the scans.
- Consumers were not informed of risks, including radiation exposure, false-positive tests and a false sense of security from false-negative tests.
- Some test results were inaccurate.
Judy Blazek, a consumer named in the lawsuit and a former Heart Check America employee, paid the company $3,000 but never received her scan results, the lawsuit says. Blazek sought a refund, but could not reach company officials, who had closed the company’s sites in Tinley Park and Arlington Heights.
The complaint says another consumer, Kathleen Collins-Kuba, received a free heart scan and purchased a full body scan for $600 on March 6. Later, her doctor told her the scan results had no medical relevance, and a follow-up CT scan performed at her physician’s request indicated that Heart Check America’s body scan was inaccurate. The hospital scan showed a kidney stone on one side of her body, but the Heart Check America scan showed it was on the other side, the complaint says.
Since June 2010, the Illinois Attorney General has received 25 complaints against Heart Check America, the complaint says. As we’ve reported, hundreds of additional complaints have been filed against the company with the Federal Trade Commission, various state regulatory agencies and the Better Business Bureau.
At its peak, Heart Check America operated eight clinics nationwide, but it has closed its offices in Colorado, Illinois and Nevada, as well as two of its California locations, in San Diego and Irvine. The phone at its Los Angeles location is no longer in service, and calls to its Washington, D.C., site were unanswered.
It’s possible that thousands have paid in full for multi-year contracts that may never be fulfilled, the lawsuit says.
The Attorney General’s office has the authority to enjoin activities that are in violation of the Consumer Fraud Act, even to the point of shutting down a business. The agency is seeking civil penalties of up to $50,000 per violation if the court concludes there was intent to defraud, as well as restitution to consumers and the voiding of their contracts.