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Tuesday, June 7, 2011 | 2:05 a.m.
The telemarketer declared in February with an abnormal offer: chargeless affection scans for me and my wife, an $800 value, from a aggregation declared Affection Check America.
The activity would be “noninvasive,” he promised. No needles. “Just lie on a table and authority your breath.” The scans could analyze affection ache and ability aloof save our lives, he added.
Three weeks later, at a dispensary in a Las Vegas arrangement park, Tom, a salesman for the company, led us through an apocalyptic PowerPoint presentation that was a prerequisite for accepting the scans.
He gave archetype afterwards archetype of athletes and celebrities — amount skater Sergei Grinkov, baseball amateur Darryl Kile, accuser Tim Russert — who seemed to be in the prime of life, again abandoned asleep of affection attacks.
“You never apperceive aback it could appear … Boom, you’re dead!” he said, slapping a board for emphasis.
If abandoned they had appear to Affection Check America, Tom said ruefully. The company’s Electron Axle Tomography machines could accept spotted the adverse accretion of calcium in their arteries, advertence they were at risk. The aggregation scanned added organs, too. Perhaps a analysis could accept helped Patrick Swayze, who died of pancreatic cancer, Tom said.
After 45 minutes, Tom got bottomward to business. He pulled out a amount breadth and apprenticed us to go above the chargeless scans and advancement to a 10-year arrangement for anniversary imaging services, including heart, lung, bone-density and added scans. If we active up immediately, the arrangement — usually $7,995 — could be ours for aloof $2,995 added $199 in anniversary dues. Costs was accessible on the spot.
In the accomplished two years, Affection Check America has fabricated agnate pitches to tens of bags of Americans in bristles states, bringing in about $30 actor in revenue, according to its manager, David Haddad.
But recently, the aggregation has appear beneath blaze from patients, regulators and medical experts.
In array of customer complaints, Affection Check America audience accept accused the aggregation of application burden sales approach inappropriate for a bloom affliction company.
“They are manipulating your health, your activity and your future,” said Elizabeth Lucki, who entered into a Affection Check America arrangement afterwards sitting through a two-hour pitch, again spent two months angry to abolish the deal, forfeiting the $1,990 she paid up front. “This was like brainwashing.”
Doctors accept lashed into the aggregation for business scans to those who best acceptable do not charge them — bodies beneath 40 who don’t smoke, aren’t overweight, and accept no ancestors history or affection of affection disease. Alike for patients at accident of affection disease, some experts say, there is no medical affirmation that the allowances of the tests outweigh abeyant dangers. Scans can aftereffect in apocryphal positives, arch to accidental treatments that are invasive and risky, said Dr. Gilbert Welch, a Dartmouth Medical School assistant who studies the problems created by attempts at aboriginal ache detection.
“The acceptance they’d like you to accomplish is that this could abandoned advice you,” Welch said of Affection Check America. “But that’s not right. It could aching you.”
In the accomplished two months, regulators in Nevada and Colorado accept cited one Affection Check America breadth and shuttered another, adage they lacked able medical administration and had not taken able precautions to abstain advertisement patients to balance radiation. The aggregation bankrupt its Las Vegas centermost a few weeks afterwards my arrangement with Tom. Last week, calls to some added locations were answered with an automatic bulletin adage the aggregation was actuality reorganized.
Haddad has run into agnate difficulties before. In 2007, Indiana’s advocate accustomed filed a accusation adjoin companies run by Haddad and his wife, alleging they had bamboozled barter to get them to buy time-shares, vacation bales and biking club memberships.
Haddad accustomed that Affection Check America has fabricated some missteps, but he abhorrent best of the contempo accommodating complaints on a acting excess acquired aback the aggregation switched to a new radiology accumulation to apprehend its scans. He characterized the authoritative violations as accessory and said the aggregation was demography accomplish to accompany its centers into acquiescence with government standards.
He angrily dedicated the amount of the company’s services, adage its scans accord patients accord of apperception and had alike adored lives.
“People appear aback and say, ‘Thank you, my wife will be (alive) because we begin this,’” Haddad said. “I fabricated my mom and sister go. Bodies hug and kiss us goodbye in these clinics.”
From time-shares to bloom care
California administrator Bruce Friedman founded Affection Check America with addition broker in 1992.
Friedman had no accomplishments in bloom affliction — he had been a certified accessible accountant and formed at a absolute acreage close — but he saw a business befalling in the scanning gadgetry arising at the time.
Some medical centers were application electron axle tomography machines — a blazon of CT apparatus that takes accelerated images not blurred by the assault affection — but the technology was new and tests done for antitoxin purposes were not usually covered by insurance.
Heart Check America was amid a scattering of startups launched to bazaar EBT scans to patients accommodating to pay banknote and to physicians who could accomplish referrals.
Friedman opened his aboriginal centers in Los Angeles and Chicago, again broadcast to St. Louis, Indianapolis, Washington and Arlington Heights, Ill.
His business archetypal was starkly altered from the one acclimated by the aggregation today. Each dispensary was affiliated with bounded doctors and radiologists. About all the patients came through doctors’ referrals. The doctors ordered specific tests, for which patients paid collapsed rates. There were no abiding contracts.
By 2008, however, the alternation was foundering. Although its EBT machines were still advised best for cardiac scans, newer high-resolution CT machines did added types of anatomy scans bigger and cheaper. Imaging centers proliferated to attempt for this business. There are added than 4,400 CT centers civic accustomed by the American College of Radiology. Abandoned about 50 of them accept EBT machines, which are no best manufactured.
Friedman shut bottomward all but two Affection Check America locations. Again he was approached by Haddad.
Haddad, too, had a accomplishments in business, not medicine, operating time-share companies for 17 years.
That came to an end afterwards the Indiana advocate accustomed declared that time-share businesses he ran with his wife had bamboozled array of customers. The Haddads were accused of cartoon bodies in with prizes that were never delivered and misrepresenting altitude absorbed to biking deals or arrangement cancellations.
Haddad said he became a dupe aback his businesses absent their costs and failed, but he maintained he had done annihilation wrong. “I’m not active on a yacht in the Caribbean,” he said.
In 2009, a $470,602 absence acumen was entered adjoin the companies to awning restitution, civilian penalties and the amount of the investigation. None of the money owed by the Haddads or their businesses has been paid, Indiana admiral said.
Haddad said he was fatigued to Affection Check America because it offered the adventitious to use his business abilities to a added allusive end. As a child, he had watched his aunt die of breast blight at 33. Affection Check’s scans could advice analyze such diseases earlier, he said, giving patients a bigger adventitious at survival.
“If I’m activity to advertise anxiety systems or time-shares or carpets, I’d rather advertise article I absolutely accept in,” he said.
Haddad addled a accord for his mother, Sheila Haddad, to acquirement the aggregation in 2009. Haddad and his mother are listed as admiral or managers on the company’s accumulated filings in assorted states, although its buying shares are not public. Haddad said he supervises the company’s sales and marketing.
According to Haddad, a abstracted broker accumulation that includes Friedman additionally has a pale in the company. Neither he nor Friedman would alarm its size.
Sales advance brings advance and gripes
Soon afterwards Haddad took the helm, he told Friedman about his plan to absolute bazaar 10-year account packages. Friedman said he told Haddad that bounden audience to abiding affairs ability not be fair — or medically advisable.
“How can you apperceive what analysis is activity to be adapted three years from now?” Friedman said. “How can you apperceive this technology will be relevant, or that this actuality will be a acceptable applicant for it?”
Haddad did not acknowledge to questions from ProPublica about Friedman’s comments.
Under Haddad’s leadership, Affection Check America undertook a abrupt expansion. In 15 months, the aggregation added six centers, architecture some and accepting the rest. The aggregation additionally started to apply business techniques agnate to those Haddad had acclimated in his time-share businesses, calling consumers at home and alms them chargeless affection scans to appear accept to sales presentations.
It worked. Affection Check America administered about 60,000 chargeless scans in 2010, Haddad said.
He wouldn’t say how abounding browse recipients active up for abiding contracts, but centralized abstracts appearance the aggregation assertive at atomic some who accustomed the antecedent offer. A address provided to ProPublica by a above Affection Check America agent shows that in one anniversary in November, 148 of about 600 bodies who abounding the company’s pitches active affairs account advancement of $400,000.
The company’s sales advance additionally triggered a fasten in customer complaints. The Federal Trade Commission has accustomed 681 complaints about Affection Check America aback Jan. 25, abounding of them alleging violations of the National Do Not Alarm Registry, which restricts telemarketing.
More than three dozen complaints about Affection Check America accept been filed with the Bigger Business Bureau, best aback the alpha of this year. The alignment has accustomed the aggregation an F grade, based not abandoned on the aggregate of problems, but on the company’s acknowledgment to them.
Scores of added complaints accept popped up on Internet sites such as www.ripoffreport.com and www.merchantcircle.com, abounding citation the approach acclimated by Affection Check staffers to get bodies to assurance contracts.
In one complaint filed with the Illinois advocate general, ancestors associates declared their aged mother was affected to sit through a two-hour sales presentation, again abashed into signing accommodation affidavit to awning the amount of a abiding contract.
Arthur Caplan, administrator of the Penn Centermost for Bioethics, said it was bent to use abhorrence or burden to get accord for a medical procedure. He declared Affection Check America’s sales approach “medically cool and about ridiculous.”
Other Affection Check America audience accept complained that it takes abundant best than promised for the aggregation to bear browse after-effects and, in some cases, that the after-effects appeared to be inaccurate.
In June 2010, Stephanie and Mark Sojka active up for chargeless affection scans at Affection Check America’s berth at a gasbag airship festival. They adopted not to assurance a abiding arrangement but paid $995 to accept a array of tests at the company’s Tinley Park, Ill., clinic. The dispensary promised the brace they would accept the after-effects aural 10 days, but two months anesthetized afterwards word. Afterwards the Sojkas complained to the Bigger Business Bureau, Affection Check America beatific the results, but the adjournment larboard the brace ambiguous whether they could be trusted.
“If they had such a adamantine time accepting a address to us, how do I apperceive they didn’t accomplish a arrangement to get us off their back?” Stephanie Sojka said.
Haddad did not acknowledge to questions about the Sojka’s case, but said the “handful” of complaints adjoin Affection Check America was askew by the acclaim the aggregation has accustomed from annoyed customers. “I’ve gotten hundreds of testimonials,” he said.
Benefits of screening uncertain
Within the medical community, there is affair that imaging companies may be business casework to patients for whom they are accidental or, possibly, harmful.
I consulted with experts at several medical schools, the American College of Cardiology, the American College of Radiology and the U.S. Antitoxin Casework Task Force, a console accumulated by the federal government to abstraction accurate affirmation and accomplish absolute recommendations for care. All agreed that affection scans of the blazon offered by Affection Check America were inappropriate for patients with a low accident of affection ache — a class that included me and my wife.
EBT scans additionally are inappropriate for high-risk patients, for whom there are added able appraisal techniques, such as accent tests, said Dr. William Zoghbi, administrator of cardiovascular imaging at the Methodist DeBakey Affection & Vascular Centermost in Houston and president-elect of the American College of Cardiology.
Zoghbi said the scans are best ill-fitted to bodies who display some accessible break of affection disease, such as aerial cholesterol, or who accept a ancestors history of abortive coronary disease.
But added medical experts questioned the amount of screening for any patients. Welch, the Dartmouth professor, said aboriginal screening sometimes prompts patients and their doctors to overreact, alleviative accessory altitude bigger larboard alone. Once discovered, a accretion of calcium in a patient’s arteries that ability never advance to affection ache can activate a avalanche of invasive treatments, such as a cardiac catheterization or airship angioplasty, he said.
No randomized controlled trials accept been conducted that announce that EBT scans can adumbrate affection disease, said Dr. Virginia Moyer, administrator of the U.S. Antitoxin Casework Task Force.
“The accurate affirmation is aloof not there one way or another,” said Moyer, a assistant of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine.
It’s not aberrant for imaging centers to bazaar their casework anon to consumers, announcement or sending fliers by mail. Moyer said she afresh accustomed a flier from a aggregation that performs scans out of a van in abbey parking lots.
Although it’s absurd to say how abundant business is generated this way, “the affair is that these are bodies who are bloodthirsty on the fears of the public,” Moyer said.
Clinics operated by Affection Check America accept accustomed analysis from government overseers in contempo months.
Imaging centers are adapted by accompaniment bloom agencies, which set assurance guidelines for tests and scanning accessories and conduct alternate inspections.
After I declared the Nevada Accompaniment Bloom Division to ask if Affection Check America was accustomed to accord me a affection browse afterwards a doctor’s prescription, the bureau inspected the company’s Las Vegas facility.
Based on their findings, regulators ordered the dispensary to stop administering scans afterwards doctors’ orders and to booty accomplish to assure advisers from radiation exposure.
The centermost afterwards closed. Haddad said it was shut bottomward because it was accident money, not for assurance reasons. He said he was not acquainted of the allegation by Nevada officials.
Haddad said added imaging companies had agreed to account affairs captivated by Affection Check America patients in the area.
After actuality notified of Nevada’s action, Colorado regulators arrested Affection Check America’s Denver center. They begin a account of deficiencies, including no affidavit that staffers operating the scanner were qualified, no controls to ensure patients accustomed as little radiation as possible, and that tests were actuality conducted afterwards doctors’ orders.
Inspectors additionally begin that the dispensary was not supervised by a physician accountant in Colorado and that analysis after-effects weren’t actuality apprehend by a able radiologist or delivered to patients in a appropriate manner.
According to regulators, Affection Check America listed Dr. Matthew Budoff, a California cardiologist, as the Denver center’s medical director. Budoff, who is medical administrator of the company’s Irvine, Calif., site, said he was not associated with the Denver facility.
“It’s a little annoying to apprehend that I’m affiliated with a armpit that I’m not accustomed with,” he said.
Heart Check America shut its Denver ability afterwards responding to the state’s findings. Haddad said he accepted the dispensary to reopen anon and promised that all Affection Check America centers would anon be in acquiescence with accompaniment regulations. The Colorado advocate general’s arrangement said it had fielded about 80 complaints from patients aback the centermost bankrupt its doors.
Friedman said he had congenital a able acceptability for Affection Check America during the 17 years he operated the company, which Haddad “trashed.”
“You can’t body a business for the continued appellation … by ambiguous people,” he said.
Budoff said he’s “very concerned” that the altercation surrounding Affection Check America could dissuade bodies from accepting scans that could analyze affection disease.
“We accept to abstracted out a distinct provider from the analysis itself,” he said. “The analysis is good. The provider may not accept done article proper.”
Haddad said he is continuing to attending for opportunities in the imaging business. He has formed a new company, Blight Check America, in Hilton Head, S.C, to focus on blight screening.
A anniversary afterwards my wife and I accustomed our chargeless affection scans (which showed no blockages in our arteries), I accustomed addition alarm from Affection Check America.
This time, the rep offered me the adventitious to accompany the company’s barometer affairs by accouterment acquaintance advice for 10 friends, so they could be arrive to get chargeless scans and sit in on sales presentations.
For every brace who attended, he said, I would accept $50.
“My point today is to get as abounding bodies accessible for the chargeless scan,” he said. “To accomplish abiding their hearts are healthy.”
Allen was the Sun’s bloom affliction anchorman afore abutting ProPublica, a nonprofit accumulation focused on analytic journalism. He can be accomplished at [email protected]/@marshall_allen
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