Crime & Justice

Doctor accused of fraud in spinal surgeries pleads guilty

Dr. Aria Sabit (not pictured) is barred for life from the medical profession as a result of a plea deal struck in Detroit with federal prosecutors from two states.
Dr. Aria Sabit (not pictured) is barred for life from the medical profession as a result of a plea deal struck in Detroit with federal prosecutors from two states.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

A doctor pleaded guilty Friday to committing conspiracy in California and fraud in Michigan, admitting that he hurt patients and cheated insurers with spinal surgeries that were unnecessary or not performed as promised.

Dr. Aria Sabit, 39, is barred for life from the medical profession as a result of a plea deal struck in Detroit with federal prosecutors from two states.

Sabit said he conspired to get kickbacks in exchange for using or encouraging the use of certain surgical implants in Ventura, California. Separately, he said he committed fraud against insurers while working as a neurosurgeon in the Detroit area, where he had relocated in 2011 while under scrutiny by regulators.

"Dr. Sabit's actions were deplorable," said Lamont Pugh III, who heads the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Inspector General in Chicago.

Guidelines call for a prison sentence of at least nine years, although a judge could go higher when Sabit returns to court on Sept. 15.

He replied "yes" and "I did" when asked if he performed unnecessary surgeries and caused serious injury to patients.

"I plead guilty, your honor," Sabit told U.S. District Judge Paul Borman.

A former patient, Cindy Hallett, 60, traveled 50 miles from Davisburg to attend the hearing. She later walked slowly from the courthouse, her shoulders stooped, and paused to talk about how Sabit treated her back and leg pain.

"He was supposed to do a fusion. He opened me up and closed me up and did nothing," Hallett told The Associated Press, crying as she described her experience. "I just want to ask: Why? I don't understand how you can treat another human that way. ... He's been stopped. That's all I wanted."

Another patient, Tonocca Scott, 40, of Ypsilanti said he's still in pain from a surgery that didn't fix his back problem in 2012.

"I don't trust doctors the way I did before Dr. Sabit," said Scott, who didn't attend the hearing.

Defense attorney Tim Lessing said Sabit has taken responsibility.

"He's pleaded guilty. There's remorse," Lessing said.

In the California case, Sabit admitted that every spinal surgery that he performed with implant devices from Apex Medical Technologies LLC was related to illegal kickbacks, according to his plea agreement.

Sabit last year surrendered his medical license in California after allegations of malpractice.