It's a Thursday afternoon and Dr. Khaled Jabboury greets a patient in the waiting room of his office at the West Houston Medical Center. The woman, though it's not immediately noticeable, is facing the toughest challenge of her life.
As Dr. Jabboury has proven, she has come to the right place. For 35 years, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center-educated doctor has studied and treated patients with breast cancer. Twenty-five years ago, in a remarkable accomplishment, he helped a patient overcome stage IV breast cancer. This past January, the woman, alive and well in Brazil, rang the doc to wish him a happy birthday.
"I've seen leaps and bounds in this field," says Dr. Jabboury, a tall and kind man who grew up in Beirut, Lebanon. "We haven't even reached the max possible."
In 2007, Dr. Jabboury, a long and loud critic of the billing practices of medical insurance companies, became embroiled in a dispute with one insurance king over the billing of Herceptin, a "miracle drug" that Jabboury started using in the early 2000s. The drug, which doesn't have the side effects of chemotherapy medicine, was the subject of the made-for-TV film Living Proof starring Harry Connick Jr.
"Instead of billing Herceptin as a single-dose drug, he billed it as a multi-dose drug," says Joel Androphy, Dr. Jabboury's attorney. "He made an honest mistake."
After some time, Jabboury settled the disagreement. Or so he thought.
The next thing he knew, Humana, United and Blue Cross Blue Shield -- responding to a complaint that had been filed with the Texas Department of Insurance -- had nailed the doctor with charges of insurance fraud. (Jabboury and Androphy, due to a settlement agreement, declined to name the insurance company who originally complained. However, according to legal documents obtained by Hair Balls, that company was Aetna.)
"Nobody said anything to him for years and years. All of a sudden, insurance companies started saying, 'Let's see your medical records,'" says Androphy, who adds, "United, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Humana did nothing to contact us at all ever prior to the indictment."
Dr. Philip Salem, director of the Cancer Research Program at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, is a world-renowned oncologist who has served on the health-care advisory committee for George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton. He's also Dr. Jabboury's brother-in-law and brought Jabboury to M.D. Anderson as a fellow and later as a faculty member.
"I'm not exaggerating. I can't imagine somebody out there that's more moral and ethical than Dr. Jabboury," says Dr. Salem from his lavish facility in the Texas Medical Center. "They ganged up on him. I still don't understand these things....it could've been a personal vendetta."
Even with Dr. Salem in his corner as well as a long track record of successful cancer cures, Jabboury still faced jail time and the shuttering of his practice. As a result, Androphy and Berg & Androphy partner Sarah Frazier went for broke.
Instead of trying each indictment separately, the two attorneys took a major risk by combining them into a single $1.13 million case. They also elected to go to the judge for punishment, "which nobody does," says Androphy.
"We were concerned that we would have a jury that would say, 'You know what, he's a good guy but maybe he did something wrong. Let's just convict him and give him probation,'" explains Androphy. "We didn't want probation. We wanted a win.
"We took a major chance because you don't know what a judge is going to do...this kept me up every night of the trial, thinking whether I made a mistake or not."
The trial, originally scheduled to start around the tenth anniversary of 9/11, had to be rescheduled because a juror had infected his fellow jury members with anti-Middle Eastern propaganda. (As previously stated, Jabboury is originally from Beirut.)
When the case was finally heard in mid-October at Harris County Criminal District Court, a medical expert told the courtroom that billing is a complicated, inexact science that doctors are messing up all of the time.
Later, character witness after character witness testified that Dr. Jabboury and Herceptin had saved their lives, including a registered nurse and a woman whose husband left her shortly after her treatment. A couple of Dr. Jabboury-treated character witnesses -- whose now-healthy bodies had been riddled with stage IV cancer -- approached the stand and told the courtroom that they had once been read their last rites by a priest.
In the end, the lawyers' ballsy strategy paid off: The jury took about an hour (including lunch) to deliver acquittals.
"The eye contact with the jury was dodgy at the end of the trial," remembers Frazier. "I later found out that they had all made up their minds and so they were tuned out."
Shortly after, a 150-seat dinner was held for Androphy and Frazier and included cancer survivors and family members of former patients.
"I talked to one of the spouses -- his wife eventually died -- and he was thrilled that [Dr. Jabboury] had kept her alive for so long," says Androphy. Frazier adds, "I will never be in a room like that again."
Dr. Jabboury, though happy with the victory, hasn't put down his dukes. He remains as outspoken as ever as he did pre-indictment.
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"It's getting harder to cure patients because insurance companies are calling the shots," says Jabboury. "To try and keep Herceptin away from the patient is criminal.
"I feel like the charges against me were a subliminal message that said, 'Don't treat cancer.' I don't believe that. All patients are potentially curable."