Former patients take the stand in healthcare fraud trial

Former patients of Dr. Jorge Zamora Quezada took the stand Thursday to tell their stories of being diagnosed by the doctor only to be told later by another physician the initial diagnosis was incorrect.

Zamora Quezada, a rheumatologist, is on trial on accusations of running a healthcare scheme to defraud health insurers by misdiagnosing and over-treating patients.

His wife, Meisy Zamora, and two employees of their clinics are also accused of participating in the scheme, which allegedly also involved money laundering and obstruction.

The mother of one of Zamora Quezada’s former patients was the first to take the witness stand in the trial.

Elizabeth Gonzalez, 49, spoke of her then 13-year-old son’s back pain that began after a football injury. After several visits to their family doctor, they were referred to Zamora Quezada, though she said she could not recall whether it was her family doctor or someone else who referred them to the defendant.

Gonzalez took her son, Elijah Perez, to see Zamora Quezada in October 2013 until October 2014, and then returned on Sept. 17, 2015, according to medical records which Gonzalez said he found no reason to dispute.

She said that on their first visit, Zamora Quezada diagnosed him with rheumatoid arthritis and administered medication via injection.

His treatment for that diagnosis continued for about two-and-a-half years.

However, her son told her the treatment wasn’t working, she said, so they sought a second opinion.

It was then they went to see Dr. Naiara Alvarez, a rheumatologist based in Harlingen who sees patients in Edinburg once a week.

Alvarez, who herself testified later on Thursday, said Gonzalez’s son did not fit the description of a rheumatoid arthritis.

Gonzalez was relieved, believing God had cured her son, she said, though she was also confused.

Still, they celebrated at Whataburger afterward.

Upon cross examination by the doctor’s defense attorney, Trey Martinez, Gonzalez acknowledged that Perez had been experiencing joint pain, stiffness, and difficulty getting up in the morning for two years when she first when to see the family doctor in January 2013.

Reviewing his patient records from his visits to the family doctor, Gonzalez agreed he continuously experienced headaches and pain in several areas including the shoulders, neck and eventually fingers.

She also said that both she and her son’s father had been diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.

On re-direct, the attorney for the U.S. government, Adrienne Ellen Frazior, questioned the accuracy of the medical records.

Gonzalez recognized that some of the documents appeared as if they had been whited out and said she had not made those alterations.

Following Gonzalez’s testimony, another of Zamora Quezada’s former patients was called to testify about her experience

Jessica Farias was training for a 5K run when she started experiencing pain, so she went to see a general practitioner located near her home, who ran tests including blood work and X-rays.

The doctor then referred her to Zamora Quezada, with whom she said she met with for about 10 minutes on that first visit.

Farias said Zamora Quezada checked her joints and ordered lab work to be done.

She said he diagnosed her with Hashimoto’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia.

In total, she said she went to Zamora Quezada for almost two years and went to his clinic every three months, sometimes dealing with him directly but at other times dealing with his nurse practitioner.

She also did aquatic therapy but only went about two or three times.

However, during a visit to a general practitioner, she was asked to seek a second opinion and was referred to Alvarez, the Harlingen-based rheumatologist.

When she got her results from Alvarez, she was told she did not have rheumatoid arthritis.

She was a bit shocked, she said.

She said Alvarez told her she did have osteoarthritis in the knees but that it was not serious enough to require medication.

Farias testified that she is current not taking any medication and feels fine.

When she was questioned by the defense, Farias, a licensed vocational nurse, said she understood that it was OK for one doctor to disagree with another doctor and didn’t mean that the first, second or third doctor intentionally misdiagnosed her.

Martinez, the defense attorney, also showed her medical records from Dr. Manuel Sanchez, the doctor who had referred her to Zamora Quezada.

The results of one lab test states there was a positive finding of rheumatoid arthritis but Farias said Sanchez hadn’t told her that, only referred her to a specialist which Sanchez was not, stressed Frazior, the attorney for the government.

The final witness Thursday was Alvarez who spoke of her experience as a rheumatologist and what she recalled about seeing Perez and Farias.

Alvarez testified that methotrexate, the drug that Zamora Quezada prescribed to patients he had diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, is an antimetabolite that can be used for chemotherapy but only in high doses. Rheumatologists, she said, do not prescribe it in a high enough dosage for it to be used for chemotherapy.

She also recalled her encounter with Gonzalez and her son, testifying that she remembered delivering the news that he did not fit the diagnosis for rheumatoid arthritis because of Gonzalez’s reaction.

She was surprised, Alvarez said.

Testimony is expected to continue Friday when Alvarez is expected to resume her testimony depending on her schedule.