Then, despite all the colorful details and ethical concerns presented by this story, it faded from view for a year and a half.
Last night, the US investigative reporting television show "60 Minutes" aired a follow-up on the Yakuza transplants, following closely on the publication of a book, Tokyo Vice, by Jake Adelstein, the reporter who first broke the story.
The web-based version of the 60 Minutes story reprised the main points, but added emphasis to a few of interest to Health Care Renewal.
First, the 60 Minutes piece raised suspicions that the Yakuza members paid a premium to jump the UCLA liver transplant priority list:
Getting into the U.S. was one thing, but getting a liver transplant at a leading American medical center like UCLA was something else altogether.
'What's the average waiting time for someone in California waiting for a liver transplant?' [CBS correspondent Lara] Logan asked California attorney Larry Eisenberg.
'It's probably realistically three years. And it could be much longer,' he replied.
Not for Tadamasa Goto, who got a liver in just six weeks. Eisenberg finds that surprising, especially since Goto was number 80 on the waiting list.
'It should not be possible that an unsavory character from out of the country, with ties to organized crime, comes into the United States and gets a priority and obtains a transplant,' Eisenberg said.
Two families, Eisenberg's clients, both lost loved ones waiting for livers at another transplant center in the same area: Salvador Ceja was number two on the waiting list; John Rader was number five.
'Do you think, for one second, that this was legitimate? That they stood in line and waited just like your husband did?' Logan asked Rader's widow Cheryl.
'Absolutely not,' she replied. 'No. Because nobody gets a liver that quickly.'
'I think they were playing God,' Yolanda Carballo, Ceja's stepdaughter, added. 'Now, I think they were picking and choosing who they wanted to give a liver to.'
'So, in your minds, what was this about?' Logan asked.
'Money,' Rader said. 'Spoke loud and clear. And they listened.'
'That's what it was all about. Money,' Carballo agreed.
Three of Goto's Yakuza cronies also got liver transplants at UCLA. For them, money was no object. UCLA says each of their transplants cost about $400,000 dollars; the Yakuza all paid cash.
The hospital also acknowledged Goto and another Yakuza each made $100,000 donations to the transplant center.
Adelstein says Goto paid even more. 'According to police documents and sources, a million dollars for Goto. A million dollars,' he told Logan.
'A million dollars for one liver?' she asked.
'A million dollars for one liver,' Adelstein said.
Second, 60 Minutes emphasized the risk Mr Adelstein faced after he drew attention to the story of the Yakuza liver transplants at UCLA:
Tadamasa Goto returned to his life of crime as a Yakuza godfather and it all stayed hidden until Adelstein was tipped off. It took him years to piece together the details for a newspaper story. Then, when word got out that Adelstein knew, the Yakuza tried to buy his silence, offering him half a million dollars.
Asked if he was tempted by the cash offer, Adelstein said, 'Of course I'm tempted. You know? When someone offers you half a million dollars not to write something, but then again, you know I don't want to be owned by organized crime the rest of my life.'
Adelstein wrote the story for 'The Washington Post' and it eventually made its way back to Japan. The news infuriated the Yakuza bosses. For Goto, it was a humiliating blow from which he would never recover.
'I heard from someone very close to him that as he was leaving and getting in his car he said, 'That goddamn American Jew reporter, I wanna kill him,'' Adelstein said.
Japanese and U.S. law enforcement agents took Goto's threat seriously.
Adelstein now lives alone, under Tokyo police protection; his wife and children are in hiding.
'Are you concerned that there is an American citizen here whose life is at risk?' Logan asked the U.S. Embassy's Mike Cox.
'Very much so. I mean, we think the Japanese police are doing what they can to make sure that no harm comes to Mr. Adelstein. I mean, we certainly don't want to see anything happen to him,' Cox said.
'What do you have to do in your daily life to stay alive?' Logan asked Adelstein.
'You have to keep your rooms shuttered, because you don't want a sniper to pick you off across from somebody’s house,' he said.
Asked if he lives in darkness, Adelstein said, 'When I'm up in my room typing, yes. All the rooms are shuttered. You gotta be very careful on rainy days. Because when Yakuza take people out, they like to do it on rainy days, because fewer people are on the streets and the rain washes away trace evidence.'
Even in disgrace, Tadamasa Goto still has a small army of loyal soldiers and a hit out on Jake Adelstein. The Yakuza say he will never be safe.
'When someone does something that causes them (Yakuza) to lose face, they will use any means possible, legal or illegal, to crush the person who has gotten in their way, who has humiliated them,' the disguised Yakuza boss told Logan.
Finally, 60 Minutes found that the UCLA Medical Center continued to be uncooperative, cloaking its refusal to categorically refute allegations that it sold a liver for a million dollars in concerns with patient confidentiality:
Asked if UCLA knew who these people were, Adelstein said, 'When you see guys with lots of tattoos, missing fingers, wouldn't it occur to you, like, 'Oh, this guy is a gangster.' I can't believe they didn't know.'
Attorney Eisenberg says transplant rules require extensive background checks on every patient. Yet, UCLA insisted to federal investigators they had 'no knowledge' that Goto or his cronies had ties to Japanese organized crime.
UCLA declined all of 60 Minutes' requests for interviews. The only thing the medical center will say on the record is that their program has been reviewed and found to be in 'total compliance' with liver transplant rules.
The hospital told us, 'state and federal patient confidentiality laws prohibit UCLA from responding to the…issues raised by 60 Minutes.'
'In my opinion, the medical center has a moral and ethical obligation to determine the source of those funds,' Eisenberg said.
'A moral and ethical obligation, but apparently no legal obligation?' Logan asked.
'Well, it's not addressed in the rules specifically,' Eisenberg said
As I wrote in my first post on this case, you just can't make this stuff up...
However, the colorfulness of the case should not distract from its very serious implications. We have written a lot in this blog about the anechoic effect, how cases with important implications about ethics, governance and leadership in health care often fail to attract the attention they deserve. We have opined that academics and professionals have realized that it is simply "not done" to discuss cases which might offend the powerful leaders of health care organizations. We have written about whistle-blowers who have lost jobs or been theatened with lawsuits. But in this case, the journalist who wrote about the case allegedly has received death threats and lives in hiding under police protection. This may be the most serious case of the anechoic effect known.
Furthermore, we have written a lot in this blog about how leaders of health care organizations ought to uphold their organizations' mission and the core values to which physicians and other health care professionals have sworn devotion. The continued disinclination of UCLA leadership to respond to charges that its medical center accepted $1 million to put Japanese gangsters at the head of the liver transplant list may reflect fear of gangsters who also allegedly threatened the life of the journalist who reported the case. But by failing to rebut such charges, the leadership leaves the impression that they cannot claim to be better than the moral equivalents of gangsters. Institutions that aspire to join "the ranks of the nations [sic] elite medical schools" ought also to aspire to have leaders that have better ethics than Yakuza bosses.
Transparency International has suggested that health care corruption is a global scourge that costs lives. Serious health care reform cannot ignore health care corruption as a cause of excess costs, denied access, and poor quality. Health care organizations ought to be held to a higher standard of ethics, and be less prone to corruption than, for example, garbage hauling firms. Health care organizations ought to subscribe to rigorous codes of ethics, impartially enforced, which apply to all within the organizations, including top leaders. While the accused need to be afforded due process, whistle-blowers must also be protected. In my humble opinion, true health care reform requires so confronting health care corruption. Maybe the leadership of the Gefen School of Medicine might want to consider setting an example in this regard.
Note: Jake Adelstein's book is available here, and it was reviewed by Reuters here and by the AP (via the Canadian Press) here.