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Surgeon barred from practicing after claims of fraud, retaliation, harassment


Surgeon barred from practicing after claims of fraud, retaliation, harassment

Jan 31, 2023 | 6:24 pm ET
By Clark Kauffman
Surgeon barred from practicing after claims of fraud, retaliation, harassment
A surgeon accused of sexual harassment and Medicare fraud has been barred from practicing medicine in Iowa due to patient-safety concerns. (Stock photo via Canva)

A Des Moines plastic surgeon accused of sexual harassment, workplace retaliation and Medicare fraud has been barred from practicing medicine in Iowa due to concerns over his ability to do so safely.

The allegations against Dr. Ronald S. Bergman, 74, of Bergman Plastic Surgery also involve the surgeon’s girlfriend and former clinic manager, who is a full-time detective with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office. Detective Robyn Bartholomew is named as a defendant in two of the civil cases filed against the doctor.

The sheriff’s office has declined to comment on the allegations against Bartholomew. She has worked for the county since December 1992.

Earlier this year, Bergman was the subject of a federal investigation into allegations that he routinely “upcoded” his services by billing minor or brief treatments as more extensive and costly services. He also was accused of submitting to Medicare bills for services he claimed to have provided himself but were actually provided by an assistant or individuals under his supervision.

Three months ago, Bergman agreed to a settlement that requires him to pay $800,000 to the federal government to settle allegations of billing Medicare for work performed by others in his office.

Last month, in a decision unrelated to the federal investigation, the Iowa Board of Medicine issued an emergency order barring Bergman from practicing medicine. The order was issued after Bergman told the board he did not intend to complete neurological evaluations the board had ordered him to undergo.

Bergman’s attorney, Marc Humphrey, said he’s limited as to what he can say about some of the allegations against his client, but that a hearing on the board’s emergency order is scheduled for May 19. “We really feel like the board has not been totally transparent in all this,” Humphrey said.

Inappropriate texts, concerns with tremors 

Bergman’s history with the board dates back to 2005, when he was charged with having violated professional physician-patient boundaries by marrying a former patient who continued to be treated by one of his own assistants. He was issued a warning and ordered to undergo education on professional boundaries.

In January 2022, the board entered into another settlement agreement with Bergman that entailed a $2,500 fine and another warning. In that case, Bergman was accused of sending inappropriate text messages to an employee. The board also alleged Bergman suffered from a neurological impairment that might interfere with his ability to safely practice medicine.

To settle the matter, Bergman agreed to worksite monitoring, additional education on professional boundaries, restrictions on his ability to practice, and quarterly neurological evaluations. After Bergman refused to submit to the evaluations, the board issued its emergency order.

Humphrey said the board’s desire for a neurological evaluation is tied to unfounded claims that Bergman suffers from hand tremors. As for the restrictions on Bergman’s practice, those were dictated by Bergman himself, not by the board, Humphrey said, but because they are part of the formal agreement Bergman signed with the board, the doctor is now having trouble getting privileges at central Iowa hospitals.

Full-time county detective worked at clinic

In addition to the board’s disciplinary actions, Bergman has been named a defendant in four separate civil lawsuits filed by former employees, two of which are still pending:

Retaliation, defamation: In February 2020, Dr. Suzanne Kuhnen sued Bergman and the clinic, alleging he had made inappropriate sexual comments to her and female colleagues while she worked at the clinic as part of a fellowship. She alleged Bergman referred to her as a “c—” and a “cow,” and then interfered with her application for hospital privileges. The lawsuit was settled out of court in March 2022.

Retaliation: In March 2020, Sarah Hurm, another former employee of the clinic, sued Bergman and Bartholomew, alleging that in October 2019 she reported to Bartholomew some form of “noncompliance with federal regulations” related to insurance payments. Bartholomew allegedly fired Hurm later that day.

In a deposition, Bartholomew said she fired Hurm for insubordination and because “she was looking for another job.” The insubordination, she said, was related to Hurm’s “tone” in speaking with her.

In that same July 2021 deposition, Bartholomew stated that Bergman had been her boyfriend for two-and-a-half to three years. She said she worked at the clinic part time from the spring of 2019 through the end of 2020, initially as Bergman’s assistant and then as the clinic’s manager, all while working full time for the sheriff’s office.

“I would stop in (at the clinic) weekly, maybe once a week or a couple times after work,” she testified. “Most of it was done from the computer at my home.”

She testified that she didn’t recall how she came to apply for, or be given, the job of managing a medical clinic.

“You don’t know if you applied for it?” Hurm’s attorney, Matthew Brick, asked.

“I did not apply for it, fill out an application,” Bartholomew said.

“Is this something you had background in doing? Like, had you ever been an office manager before?” Brick asked.

“Like, in — what do you mean?” Bartholomew asked. “Like an office manager?”

“Well,” Brick said, “you said earlier that you have a two-decades-plus history in public safety, and so I’m wondering, do you also have a background in managing an office?”

“I guess, no,” Bartholomew replied. “I managed a farm facility that we had breeding horses, and we had employees there.”’

Bergman and Bartholomew have denied any wrongdoing. Hurm’s lawsuit is still pending, and a trial is scheduled for March 6.

Sexual harassment, retaliation: In October 2020, former clinic administrator Peggy West sued Bergman and Bartholomew. She alleged that during an office party, Bergman showed her photographs of his penis and said he was sending the photos to Bartholomew. Throughout her employment, West claimed, Bergman regularly and openly made comments to, and about, women in the office by referring to them as “dumb c—-s” and “f—-ing morons.”

West alleged that after she complained of Bergman’s conduct, he made comments such as, “Don’t do anything you would regret,” and, “I need to know that you are loyal to me,” while referring to his supposed ties to what he called “the Mexican mafia.”

West also claimed Bartholomew was at the clinic three to four days each week, several hours each day. Bartholomew’s specific job responsibilities were unknown to West, despite West’s role as clinic administrator, the lawsuit alleges. Bartholomew, West claimed, frequently walked around the clinic “openly displaying her firearm.”

In her lawsuit, West alleged that in 2019, the Iowa Board of Medicine initiated a new investigation into Bergman and that she provided “truthful but negative” information about the doctor. After Bergman learned of the interview, he allegedly contacted the Des Moines Police Department and reported that West had engaged in forgery and theft at the clinic by converting clinic funds to her own use.

In March 2020, West was criminally charged with felony theft and felony forgery. Six months later, the charges were dropped at the request of Polk County prosecutors, who told the court they were investigating allegations of “retaliatory reporting for prosecution.”

West sued Bergman and Bartholomew, alleging they persuaded police to file false criminal charges against her in retaliation for her triggering a federal investigation into Bergman’s billing practices. The investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice eventually led to Bergman agreeing to pay the government $800,000, with $200,000 of that going to West for reporting the situation to authorities.

Bergman and Bartholomew denied all of West’s allegations. The lawsuit was dismissed earlier this week on the eve of a scheduled trial.

Harassment and discrimination: In November 2021, Rhonda Swanson, a former administrative assistant at Bergman-Folkers Plastic Surgery, the predecessor of Bergman Plastic Surgery, sued Bergman. Swanson alleges that on her first day of work at the clinic she was stunned to hear Bergman refer to former female employees as “c—s” and as “worthless.”

Swanson also claims that Bergman had her come to his office on more than one occasion so he could discuss his relationship with Bartholomew. He allegedly described for Swanson the couple’s sexual activities on the third floor of the Grand Avenue mansion where the practice was located and commented on the genitals of Bartholomew’s other boyfriend.

The lawsuit alleges Swanson then learned of “Dr. Bergman’s possible involvement in criminal activities” when he claimed to have connections to “the Mexican Mafia.” Bergman also brought up the death of his ex-wife, the lawsuit claims, and alluded to some involvement of “the Mexican Mafia,” saying they knew how to “get rid” of people.

The lawsuit also claims Bergman showed Swanson a nude photo of a woman and asked, “Does she look 50?”

The lawsuit alleges that when West, the clinic administrator, brought to Bergman’s attention concerns that some Medicare billing practices appeared questionable, Bergman laughed and said he could evade any consequences due to Bartholomew’s employment with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office.

At another meeting, Bergman allegedly inquired as to the location of the building’s security cameras, asking West and Swanson whether they had seen his penis when he entered the building half-dressed.

Bergman has denied all of Swanson’s allegations. A trial is scheduled for March 2024.