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Brockovich has new target


LOS ANGELES --Erin Brockovich has a famous name, Hollywood good looks, an agent and a new cause: Medicare.

The one-time legal assistant, whose environmental crusade against a utility company inspired a hit movie starring Julia Roberts, has lent her name as plaintiff in lawsuits against several California hospitals and convalescent homes. The suits allege that the defendants pocketed millions in taxpayer dollars while covering up their own mistakes.

Her seven lawsuits, filed last week in Los Angeles Superior Court, are among dozens filed across the country targeting health care providers but using other plaintiffs, her lawyer said.

The lawsuits allege that health care companies are charging Medicare, the federally financed health plan for seniors, to treat illnesses they helped cause through medical error or neglect. The lawsuits do not involve specific allegations of wrongdoing by defendants, but seek instead to find evidence of such treatments, arguing Medicare should be reimbursed.

One defendant called the lawsuits a publicity stunt by a "celebrity plaintiff."

"These are the kinds of baseless lawsuits that contribute to the high cost of health care today," said David Langness, a spokesman for Tenet California, a division of hospital operator Tenet Healthcare Corp., a target of Brockovich's lawsuits.

Along with reimbursing Medicare, Brockovich and her attorneys could potentially win millions of dollars if the lawsuits are successful.

"This is what I do," the 45-year-old Brockovich said. "I am an advocate. It would be as odd for me to turn down a cause as it would be for Julia Roberts to not do another movie."

Brockovich is suing on behalf of the United States under a law that allows citizens to bring grievances in the government's name. Her attorneys also have filed lawsuits in New Jersey and Florida using other citizens as plaintiffs, said attorney James L. Wilkes of Wilkes & McHugh, one of two law firms behind the legal effort.

The other defendants in California include Adventist Health, Country Villa Service Corp., Catholic Healthcare West, Kindred Healthcare Inc., Longwood Management Corp. and Mariner Health Care Inc.

The allegations focus on reports by the federal government that medical errors increase costs for Medicare.

For example, if a hospital operates on a wrong body part, Medicare may end up paying for it as well as the surgery on the correct body part. Medicare may also foot the bill if a patient becomes dehydrated or contracts an infection in the hospital or convalescent home.

Federal health officials estimate medical errors may account for more than $9 billion in health care costs annually and are pushing for quality control measures to curb such expenses.

Medicare officials declined to comment this week on Brockovich's lawsuits.

Since the 2000 movie that earned Roberts an Oscar, Brockovich has made the rounds of various public forums, including TV shows. William Morris Agency manages her public relations talent, while law firms manage her legal cachet.

She served as a consultant in a lawsuit against Pacific Gas & Electric, which settled in February for $295 million over allegations that it contaminated groundwater in and around the town of Hinkley, Calif.

The tiny, windblown community 125 miles northeast of Los Angeles was the setting of separate 1996 lawsuit over a similar issue that led to a $333 million payment by the utility company and inspired the Universal Studios movie.

Brockovich is based at Masry & Vititoe, the Los Angeles law firm founded by the late Ed Masry. He helped file the lawsuits against PG&E; and was featured in the movie.

Brockovich and Masry also filed a lawsuit three years ago against various oil companies on behalf of former Beverly Hills High School students who allegedly were exposed to cancer-causing chemicals left on campus from oil operations. The trial is scheduled for October.

Brockovich said she was moved to action on the Medicare lawsuits because she was concerned about rising health care costs. She also was concerned about being pigeonholed as an environmental activist.

Daniel Yi writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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