Surgeons performing a spinal surgery in Nice, France.
Enlarge / Surgeons performing a spinal surgery in Nice, France.

A federal judge in California has sentenced a neurosurgeon to five years in prison for his part in a multimillion-dollar fraud scheme that used bribes and kickbacks to funnel thousands of patients to a now-dead hospital.

Patients were left questioning the quality of the medical devices now implanted into their spine, as well as whether they needed surgery to begin with.

The neurosurgeon, Lokesh Tantuwaya, 55, of San Diego, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for his part in the scheme. Dozens of medical professionals, including Tantuwaya, received large bribes and kickbacks to refer patients to the Pacific Hospital of Long Beach.

Many of the fraudulent medical bills were paid by California's worker's compensation system. A total of 23 people have been convicted for their involvement in the scheme.

The scam

According to federal prosecutors, Drobot pays kickbacks of $15,000 per fusion surgery for the lower back and $10,000 per surgery for the upper back. The fake contracts with Drobot were used to hide the kickbacks. Patients with pain in their backs were encouraged to travel hundreds of miles to Pacific Hospital, though other qualified medical facilities were closer.


Federal prosecutors said that Drobot was able to pay the kickbacks because he inflated the costs of the medical devices. Drobot created shell companies to increase the cost of medical devices. According to the Department of Justice, he exploited a California law that allowed hospitals to pass on the full cost of medical devices to workers' comp insurers.

The justice department found that Drobot paid bribes to Ronald Calderon in order to keep the spine pass-through law.

The provision is no longer in use. After being indicted on a bunch of fraud, bribes, and other federal charges, Calderon pleaded guilty in 2016 and was sentenced to three years in prison. The scheme's mastermind, Drobot Jr., was sentenced to two years in prison in the case.

Sketchy surgeries

Federal prosecutors said that Tantuwaya accepted more than three million dollars in bribes for performing surgeries at Pacific Hospital. After violating the terms of his release after pleading guilty, he has been in federal custody.

Several patients from Imperial County and San Diego County traveled to Pacific Hospital for spine surgery in order to receive bribes from Tantuwaya. Many patient-victims enduring the physical anguish of multi-hour trips after spine surgeries, in addition to dealing with the mental anguish of now wondering whether they needed a surgery, whether the medical hardware drilled into their bones was legit, and whether they should have had it.