Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011 | 2 a.m.
- State frustrated by feds’ sluggish probe into foreign-physician program (2-16-2010)
- State identifies doctors under federal investigation (2-15-2010)
- J-1 doctors, employers are under scrutiny (1-25-2009)
- Foreign physicians back boss — to a point (8-30-2008)
- State confronts J-1 complaints (8-8-2008)
- Doctor's J-1 actions go under microscope (8-7-2008)
- State knew of abuses, did almost nothing (8-4-2008)
- Indentured Doctors (9-30-2007)
Dr. Rachakonda Prabhu, one of the most politically connected physicians in Las Vegas, has been the subject of an investigation by the federal government for his alleged mistreatment of foreign doctors he employs.
Now he’s the subject of another investigation, this one by the Nevada State Health Division, for the alleged harassment and firing of another foreign physician.
Dr. George Baramidze’s employment in a North Las Vegas clinic was supposed to be a good thing for him, Prabhu and the community. Baramidze, a kidney specialist, was hired by Prabhu under a government program to provide three years of primary care to patients in an area where there’s a shortage of doctors. In return, the federal government would grant Baramidze, who is from the country of Georgia, permission to become a permanent U.S. resident.
That setup ended in this month when Baramidze was fired by Prabhu, state officials said.
The dismissal isn’t any ordinary employment dispute. The terms of Baramidze’s contract were dictated by federal and state law, and his visa was sponsored by Prabhu, which means he could be deported if he does not immediately find another employer who will sponsor his visa. Baramidze would not comment for this story.
The state Health Division administers the program on behalf of the federal government and officials there would only say that they’re investigating the case and trying to help Baramidze find another job.
The Sun obtained a letter the state sent to John Hickok, who manages Prabhu’s practice, which said Baramidze was suspended in December after leaving work early Dec. 3, failing to work at a health fair on his off day and for some type of unspecified behavior. But there has been no evidence of wrongdoing provided to the state, according to the letter.
Dominic Gentile, Prabhu’s attorney, said he can’t go into the details about Baramidze’s dismissal, but that the decision was made carefully and with evidence of wrongdoing. He said he has six sworn affidavits related to the case, and will provide whatever is necessary to comply with any investigation into the matter.
“If he’s got a legitimate gripe, bring it on,” Gentile said of Baramidze.
Prabhu is well known in Las Vegas medical and political circles. He and his wife, also a physician, have contributed more than $100,000 to political candidates and the Democratic Party since 2005, according to the website OpenSecrets.org. The couple were guests at President Barack Obama’s state dinner honoring the Indian president in November 2009. Some foreign doctors who have worked for Prabhu accuse him of wielding his political connections to protect himself as he takes advantage of the foreign doctors he employs.
A source familiar with the Baramidze situation who would speak only on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said Baramidze routinely worked 80 hours a week at local hospitals and in the North Las Vegas clinic — where the federal law requires him to work 40 hours a week. The source said Baramidze willingly worked the additional hours, although he did not get paid for them.
The problem started when Baramidze became ill and could not work at the health fair, the source said. When Baramidze did not show up, Prabhu used it as a reason to fire him, so he could save money for the struggling practice, the source claimed.
The complaints involving Prabhu are familiar. He built his Red Rock Medical Center and Eldorado Medical Center practices in the past decade by hiring dozens of foreign physicians under the federal program — sometimes called “J-1 doctors” because of the visas they held during their training. A 2007 Sun investigation, called “Indentured Doctors,” detailed the allegations made by foreign doctors against Prabhu and other employers in Las Vegas and across the country, who were accused of exploiting the doctors and the federal program to enrich themselves.
Prabhu was accused by doctors who worked for him in the past of demanding that they work up to 100 hours per week and ignoring the medically needy patients so they could spend time making more money in Las Vegas hospitals that are not in medically underserved areas. If true, the allegations would be violations of federal immigration law, and the Sun’s stories launched a Homeland Security Department investigation at the urging of Sen. Harry Reid.
Gentile said he can’t get any confirmation from Homeland Security that there ever was an investigation.
“It’s a phantasm,” Gentile said of the investigation. “If there is an investigation, then why does it take so long?”
(State officials said in a February letter that the Homeland Security investigation had started in March 2008, when an agent requested files for doctors who had worked for Prabhu and other employers. The letter expressed frustration that the investigation had taken so long. The agent conducting the investigation did not return the Sun’s call for comment.)
State officials reformed the J-1 program in the wake of the Sun’s investigation, creating an oversight panel that would help monitor the employment arrangements, and adding unannounced site visits to the clinics to prevent employers from abusing the foreign doctors. They also set up a hotline so J-1 doctors could complain about any problems. Prabhu’s employment of Baramidze was scrutinized by the oversight panel, which voiced concerns about allowing more foreign doctors to work at the practice.