Norton Hospital in Louisville, Ky., may not be a household name nationally. But five senior spine surgeons have helped put it on the map in at least one category: From 2004 to 2008, Norton performed the third-most spinal fusions on Medicare patients in the country.
The five surgeons are also among the largest recipients nationwide of payments from medical-device giant Medtronic Inc. In the first nine months of this year alone, the surgeons—Steven Glassman, Mitchell Campbell, John Johnson, John Dimar and Rolando Puno—received more than $7 million from the Fridley, Minn., company.
Medtronic and the surgeons say the payments are mostly royalties they earned for helping the company design one of its best-selling spine products.
Corporate whistleblowers and congressional critics contend such arrangements—which are common in orthopedic surgery—amount to kickbacks to stoke sales of medical devices. They argue that the overuse of surgical hardware ranging from heart stents to artificial hips is a big factor behind the soaring costs of Medicare, the government medical-insurance system for the elderly and disabled.
Medtronic says it can’t develop new medical products that improve patients’ lives without the help of surgeons. It says the royalties it pays them are legitimate but it doesn’t give detailed information about what intellectual property each recipient contributes. It says it doesn’t pay its collaborating surgeons royalties on the devices they personally use in their patients, removing any financial incentive for them to do more surgeries than necessary.