A Texas man who allegedly paid in cash for hernia surgery says the operation left him scarred, near death and in financial ruin.
Pedro Hermenegildo, who works for a custodial-services company in Texas, says he visited Dr. Ricardo Rocha of Dallas in 2010 for a hernia repair. According to a lawsuit filed last week in a Dallas County district court, the surgery did not go well.
The suit claims that Rocha failed to anesthetize Hermenegildo properly, that the procedure was supposed to last an hour but instead took eight and that during the surgery Rocha severed Hermenegildo's colon and inexpertly tied it off. The poor repair job ultimately resulted in Hermenegildo losing a testicle and several inches of his intestine.
Jason Berent, Hermenegildo's attorney, told The Huffington Post that his client paid $3,000 in cash for the hernia surgery because he did not have insurance.
According to Leonardo Cuello, director of health reform at the National Health Law Program, a non-profit advocacy group, being uninsured would have put Hermenegildo among a group of about 30 million people who have few options during times of medical distress.
Some uninsured people can turn to the government for health insurance assistance -- the elderly, the very young and pregnant women to name a few. But for people who may not fall into any of these categories, or who may be unaware of where they fit in, "it's so hard [...] to understand what you might be eligible for," Cuello told HuffPost.
Cuello said that Medicaid offers "umpteen different categories of coverage" for low-income Americans, but the program can be confusing to navigate and doesn't cover everyone.
Berent said that Hermenegildo is in his early fifties and works at the same custodial company as his wife, Catalina. Berent told HuffPost that following his visit to Rocha, Hermenegildo was unable to work for a significant amount of time because of surgical complications and that his family ended up losing their home because of it.
The lawsuit against Rocha claims that the doctor performed surgery on Hermenegildo in his clinic -- described as "a small room with the usual brown reclining chair covered with white paper" -- rather than at a hospital.
It further claims that Rocha used ketamine as an anesthetic and that it was insufficient, leaving Hermenegildo in "excruciating" pain during the procedure. The suit describes ketamine as "a local numbing agent [...] most frequently used by veterinarians on animals," though ketamine is often used to treat humans as well.
A few days after the surgery, Hermenegildo was allegedly in so much pain that his wife took him to the emergency room. There, doctors found that fecal matter had spilled into his lower abdomen and his life was at risk. The subsequent operation left Hermenegildo with a colostomy bag and a torso-length scar. He also lost a testicle, as well as several inches of his colon because of that procedure, the suit claims.
Rocha referred questions to his daughter, Nelly Rocha Andresen, who declined to comment on the specifics of the case, but told HuffPost that Rocha is licensed to practice medicine in three countries -- Bolivia, Canada and the United States -- and in three languages. She said he has performed "dozens, if not hundreds" of hernia surgeries throughout his career.
Rocha, who has been licensed to practice medicine in Texas since 1966, had his license suspended in 2004 after he twice failed to pass the Special Purpose Examination, or SPEX, according to Texas Medical Board records. The SPEX exam is a test of general knowledge for physicians. In 2006, records show that Rocha successfully passed the SPEX and was reinstated by the Board.
Berent said that Rocha "does not accept insurance," and that his practice "focuses primarily on lower-income Latinos without insurance."
According to Cuello, having no health insurance is not necessarily a guarantee of receiving substandard care, but it does put patients at a disadvantage nonetheless.
"I don't know that there's anything that says that because you're paying out of pocket, you're going to get worse care," Cuello said. But uninsured people tend to put off going to the doctor until their condition is "more advanced and much worse," he said, and they're less likely to schedule follow-up visits that they'll also have to pay for in cash.
"I think they're in a much worse position in terms of getting continuous treatment," Cuello said. "Health is not a one-and-out kind of thing. It's something that you get over a continuous period. If you had health insurance that you had for one day a year, it wouldn't help you very much."
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article stated that Rocha could not be reached for comment. In fact, he referred HuffPost to his daughter Nelly, who was speaking as his representative.