BOSTON – Robert Weiss had been told repeatedly his rare, blistering skin disease was untreatable when he found his way to a Boston-area specialist known in medical circles for using an alternative treatment.

In Dr. Abdul Razzaque Ahmed, Weiss found the miracle he’d been looking for. His disease went into remission and he no longer had to suffer the severe side effects of long-term use of steroids, the common treatment for his illness.

It wasn’t until years later – when he was contacted by federal investigators – that Weiss learned Ahmed had been deceiving Medicare to get treatment for him and other patients with pemphigoid, a disease that was not covered by Medicare at the time.

“I certainly don’t believe he should have done what he did, but I’m grateful to him,” said Weiss, 89, of Orono, Maine, a retired medical doctor.

“I can tell you that he saved my life, in the sense that I would have died if I had to stay on (steroids), not from the pemphigoid, but from the treatment itself,” Weiss said.

Federal prosecutors acknowledged Monday that Ahmed was helping patients even as he broke the law.

He pleaded guilty to a single count of obstruction and agreed to surrender $2.9 million in assets. In exchange, prosecutors agreed not to pursue 14 other more serious charges – including health care fraud – against him, and said they would not seek prison time when he’s sentenced Feb. 4. Ahmed declined to comment Monday.

Authorities had painted a far different picture of Ahmed when he was indicted two years ago, depicting him as a greedy businessman looking to squeeze as much money as possible out of Medicare, the federally subsidized health insurance program for the elderly and people with disabilities.

Prosecutors say he duped Medicare by submitting fake dual diagnoses for 24 patients so he could collect reimbursements for intravenous immunoglobulin treatments, which cost between $10,000 and $12,000 per month.

Ahmed, 59, of Brookline, was indicted on 15 counts of health care fraud, money laundering, mail fraud and obstruction for allegedly collecting $5.4 million in Medicare reimbursements by mixing blood samples of patients with a severe, life-threatening skin disease called pemphigus vulgaris with samples from patients with pemphigoid, a less-serious disease.

Yet to his patients, Ahmed was something of a modern-day Robin Hood, getting them expensive treatments they would otherwise not have been able to afford.

In Weiss’ case, long-term use of steroids had caused osteoporosis and cataracts. Weiss said he was unaware that Ahmed had submitted a dual diagnosis for him, telling Medicare that Weiss had both pemphigoid and pemphigus.

“I was shocked that he had falsified the diagnosis without telling me,” said Weiss, who retired in 1986 as dean of the School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York.

Ahmed’s attorney, Richard Egbert, said Ahmed treated patients from all over the world who were referred to him by other physicians because conventional therapies were no longer working and had caused harsh complications.

“He gave this treatment to people for the purest of reasons, to alleviate their suffering and save their lives,” Egbert said.

Ahmed, who was born in India and became a U.S. citizen in the 1970s, was on the medical staff at New England Baptist Hospital and was an associate professor of oral medicine at the Harvard School of Dental Medicine. He ran his medical practice through a private Boston clinic he owned, the Center for Blistering Diseases.

Prosecutors began investigating him in 1997, after Medicare realized he was receiving millions in reimbursements for the IV immunoglobulin treatments. Ahmed is widely credited in the medical community with almost single-handedly persuading Medicare to cover the costs of the treatment for pemphigus patients. At the time, Medicare did not cover the costs of treatment for pemphigoid.

In his plea agreement, Ahmed admitted submitting false lab reports and letters to the referring physicians of some of his Medicare patients after his medical records were subpoenaed by federal investigators in 2000.

But prosecutors acknowledge in the agreement that many of Ahmed’s Medicare patients with pemphigoid benefited from the treatments Ahmed gave them. They also noted Medicare changed its policy in 2002 and began covering the immunoglobulin treatments for pemphigoid patients, a change many in the field credit Ahmed with helping create.

People who have worked with Ahmed say he wasn’t driven by profit, but instead by a desire to help patients who would not have been able to afford the intravenous immunoglobulin treatments.

“He was very instrumental in getting pemphigus covered by Medicare, and all of this community has to thank him for that because nobody else was doing it. He basically did that alone for the betterment of the patients,” said Janet Segall, founder of the International Pemphigus & Pemphigoid Foundation, based in Sacramento, Calif.



Editor’s Note: Denise Lavoie is a Boston-based reporter covering the courts and legal issues. She can be reached at dlavoie(at)ap.org


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