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Settled Case of Predatory Cochlear Implant Marketing Raises Fears on AB2072 Agenda

July 5th 2010

Eugenics - Twins-Height-Verschuer
Eugenics circa 1939. Courtesy: Edwin Black

The United States Department of Justice has announced the settlement of a case that will come as no surprise to many who have been following the story behind the Colorado based manufacturer, Cochlear Americas. The whistleblower case, brought forth by the company's Former Chief Financial Officer Brenda March in 2004, raised allegations of kickbacks and schemes to promote itself over its competitors. Under the set of rules known as the False Claims Act, Cochlear Americas was charged with paying physicians to prescribe the use of Cochlear's devices which would ultimately be reimbursed by taxpayers through Medicare and Medicaid benefits. In the settlement, Cochlear Americas agreed to pay $880,000 to resolve the issue.

In its announcement, Assistant Attorney General Tony West, who heads the Department of Justice's Civil Division said that the, “[settlement] demonstrate that the United States will not tolerate the payment of kickbacks by any entity involved in providing medical goods and services to beneficiaries of federal health care programs.” Yet, the settlement is the tip of the iceberg for what some see as a broader issue within medical and associated fields, and particularly dealing with implements designed to help provide relief for hearing loss.

In February 2010, the California Assembly introduced a controversial bill, AB2072, sponsored by Assembly member Tony Mendoza (D-Norwalk), which is seen by opponents as both encouraging a style of eugenics, essentially strongly pressing parents of deaf newborns to fix the child's “disability,” and steering parents toward the sole use of cochlear implants, a controversial medical device that is surgically implanted and can help restore hearing. The bill has selected audiologists—neither licensed or trained as doctors or surgeons—to be the main dispenser of information about cochlear implants vs. the use of traditional American Sign Language as preferred by the Deaf community.

As arguments have mounted since its introduction, advocates have claimed that the bill would help essentially cure deaf babies. The bill's opponents believe that it puts parents into the counseling hands of audiologists who do not appreciate the deaf as much as they try to “fix” them. Moreover, critics argue that the bill ultimately does not offer any true solutions other than to steer the parents toward cochlear implants. Historian Edwin Black and others have warned that bill nudges California back to its eugenic legacy, when deaf people were targeted for elimination.

After settling the case and paying a fee, Cochlear Americas can no longer market its products in the manner that it had done before. Yet, with Mendoza's bill having been found to be backed and encouraged by a committee know as the “California Coalition,” which is made up of members of an organization called Option Schools, Inc., which works with the audiologist profession and cochlear technologies, wary watchdogs foresee the use of the political process in this manner as a way circumvent the rules that stopped Cochlear America's predatory marketing strategies.

Juda Engelmayer is an executive with the NY PR agency, 5W Public Relations and a contributor to the Cutting Edge News.

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