Originally created 03/10/99

Bill would let patients sue state



ATLANTA -- Patients from the drug studies of two former Medical College of Georgia researchers would be able to sue the state for money recovered from the pair under legislation filed Tuesday by Augusta lawmakers.

The bill, filed by Reps. Ben Harbin, R-Martinez; Robin Williams, R-Augusta; and Bill Jackson, R-Appling, would essentially waive the state's sovereign immunity law that prevents members of the public from suing for major compensation from the state.

The three lawmakers also filed a resolution urging MCG to share the recouped money with the patients for Drs. Richard Borison and Bruce Diamond, now serving prison sentences for fraud. MCG President Dr. Francis J. Tedesco did not return a call to his office seeking comment.

All general bills must pass at least one chamber by today, so the sovereign immunity measure will not be approved during the 1999 General Assembly session. The 2000 session begins in January.

However, Mr. Williams said it's important to make a statement about the case.

"The debate needs to be started. We need to help them," Mr. Williams said.

Bill Hatcher Sr. of Augusta, whose wife, Marion, was part of the MCG drug study, had pushed for a compensation bill that would take the money recovered from the researchers and distribute it to their study patients.

Because it is so difficult to sue the state, legislators sometimes write compensation bills for individuals wronged by the state.

Mr. Hatcher and other area families are also considering joining a Macon man's lawsuit against the former researchers and 15 pharmaceutical companies that seeks more than $100 million.

The Georgia Advocacy Office has been in contact with 60 to 70 former study patients, some of them outside Georgia, and an Atlanta law firm is now weighing whether to pursue a class action suit.

In the eyes of patients, it is unfair that the scheme happened under MCG's nose and yet the school is getting millions in compensation for research funds the two received but never turned over.

The money is being held in a trust fund by the University System of Georgia Board of Regents. State officials have said the fund holds close to the $10 million the two confessed to taking.

"Taking the $10 million does not punish MCG or the Board of Regents" because it was a windfall, Mr. Harbin said.

University officials had not seen the legislation late Tuesday but did say that sovereign immunity "is not the sort of thing you can pick or choose" to apply, said spokeswoman Arlethia Perry-Johnson.

The money probably won't return to its original owner, Mr. Williams added,

"I'm sure the Medical College is not going to give that money back to the pharmaceutical companies," he said.

James Salzer is based in Atlanta and can be reached at (404) 589-8424 or mnews@mindspring.com. Tom Corwin covers health issues for The Augusta Chronicle. He can be reached at (706) 823-3213 or tomc@augustachronicle.com.