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California Medical Board member says agency fails to root out negligent doctors: “No question that it costs patients’ lives”


Brandi Williams is the kind of person who does her homework. So when the 64-year-old decided to undergo an abdominoplasty, or “tummy tuck,” after losing nearly 30 pounds, she made the decision carefully.

Williams settled on Dr. Jason Helliwell, an OB-GYN who also conducts cosmetic procedures, but only after running his medical license number to see if he had any history of misconduct. He appeared to have a clean record.

“It was like he was white as the driven snow,” Williams told CBS News chief investigative correspondent Jim Axelrod.

But the surgery Williams thought would help her get her confidence back turned into a year and a half of misery. According to a malpractice lawsuit Williams settled in 2019 with Helliwell, her 2016 surgery left her with a painful hematoma that required surgical repair, an off-center belly button and a flap of skin hanging off her abdomen. That pain drove Williams to file a complaint a few months after her surgery with the California Medical Board, the agency responsible for licensing and disciplining doctors.

What could have been helpful to Williams was knowing that Helliwell had been disciplined by the California Medical Board for negligence five years earlier and that others — such as Emily Yost —had reported him before.

Six weeks after delivering her child in 2013, Yost says Helliwell told her she needed umbilical hernia surgery and that he could do the procedure in his office, even though she says it had been scheduled for the hospital. According to a 2015 complaint Yost filed with the California Medical Board, she had to have “an additional surgery to fix the surgery that Dr. Helliwell performed.” What’s more? When Yost reviewed her medical records she noticed a slew of errors on pages signed by Helliwell, including that she delivered her child vaginally — despite the fact that Helliwell had performed her c-section.

CBS News has learned that while the California Medical Board dismissed the complaint Brandi Williams’ filed after her surgery and never contacted Emily Yost about hers, the board had been investigating Helliwell the entire time.

A 54-page board ruling from 2018 details a laundry list of misconduct by Helliwell including a “sexual relationship” with a patient, administering “toxic dosage[s]” of lidocaine, and “gross negligence” in the treatment of four patients. Investigators concluded Helliwell’s care of one patient “showed a fundamental lack of knowledge.”

But the California Medical Board did not revoke Helliwell’s medical license. Instead, they placed him on 42 months’ probation and put limits on his practice. They also ordered him to take an ethics course, a clinical competence assessment program and required a chaperone be present while treating female patients.

Since that 2018 ruling, Helliwell has been arrested and charged with 32 felony counts for a fraudulent medical billing scheme and earlier this year was named as a co-defendant in a malpractice lawsuit over the death of a young mother during childbirth in early 2020. Still, his medical license in California remains active and his doors open for business.

CBS News found that since 2015, the California Medical Board received more than 50,000 complaints against doctors, yet they revoked just 201 licenses — a statistic that doesn’t surprise active California Medical Board member Eserick “TJ” Watkins.

Watkins, who is speaking to media for the first time, was appointed to the California Medical Board in 2019 and says he has spent the past year trying to force the board to do a better job of holding doctors accountable. The strength coach, one of seven non-physicians on the 15-member panel, says the board suffers from undue influence from powerful physician lobbying groups and is failing to seriously discipline doctors who hurt their patients. Watkins told us the dysfunction is so severe, “There’s no question that it costs patients’ lives.”

Helliwell declined an interview with CBS News and did not respond to emailed questions.

In a statement to CBS News, the California Medical Board said: “The law requires the Board to whenever possible, take disciplinary action designed to rehabilitate their licensees so long as it is not inconsistent with public protection.”

In response to our questions about Helliwell’s criminal charges, the board said it “is looking into these allegations and is unable to share further information as the Board’s complaints and investigations are confidential by law.”

More of Jim Axelrod’s interview with California Medical Board member TJ Watkins, will air on “CBS Mornings” at 7 a.m. local time on Wednesday, September 22 on CBS.

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