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Several more malpractice lawsuits were filed this week against a Munster cardiologist accused of doing unnecessary surgical procedures to bilk money out of the federal government.

Nineteen new lawsuits and a complaint to the Indiana Attorney General's Office were filed Monday against Dr. Arvind Gandhi and two of his associates at Cardiology Associates of Northwest Indiana, Drs. Satyaprakash Makam and Wail Asfour. The practice has offices in Munster and Hammond. Munster-based Community Hospital, where the surgeries took place, was also named in the suits.

"These are life-and-death issues," Indianapolis attorney David Cutshaw said at a news conference Tuesday in Munster, noting the lawsuits include allegations of three wrongful deaths.

The suits allege the doctors have performed unnecessary pacemaker and defibrillator implantations, open-heart surgeries, angiograms and stenting --  going back decades -- because of the large monetary reimbursements the procedures bring. 

The attorneys pointed to government data mined by investigative-journalism outfit ProPublica that revealed Gandhi, Makam and Asfour were the top three Medicare-billing cardiologists in Indiana in 2012, receiving $2.18 million, $1.64 million and $1.4 million, respectively.

The average Indiana cardiologist billed an average of $170 and three services per patient in 2012, the data showed. That year, Gandhi billed an average of $945 and 12 services per patient, while Makam billed an average of $959 and 10 services for each patient; for Asfour, those numbers were $319 and five.

The lawyers invited patients of the three cardiologists who want to learn more about the case to a meeting at 7 p.m. Monday at the Munster Hampton Inn. The attorneys said three-fourths of the procedures they've reviewed so far were unnecessary.

The suits allege Community Hospital did not respond to warnings about Gandhi from other hospital physicians.

"The hospital's been sitting on its hands for 10 years," said Cutshaw, adding the administration's policy has been, "hear no evil, see no evil and cash the checks."

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A spokeswoman for Community Hospital said the hospital does not comment on allegations made in lawsuits.

Gandhi and Community Hospital were sued in May by two former patients who alleged unnecessary surgeries. In both cases, a three-doctor review panel unanimously determined Gandhi committed malpractice. In total, 28 lawsuits representing 25 families have been filed against Cardiology Associates of Northwest Indiana and Community Hospital. Gandhi has resigned his admitting privileges at the hospital.

The patients who spoke Tuesday said they got the first inkling they might be malpractice victims after seeing news reports about the previous lawsuits.

Steve Mayerak, 84, of Lansing, said he had 10 angiograms and five defibrillator and pacemaker procedures performed by Cardiology Associates of Northwest Indiana that another doctor later told him weren't needed.

"I thank the lord I'm here today," he said. "It is a really harrowing experience."

Lansing resident Judy Stein said it isn't fair the public is only hearing one side of the story. She claimed the doctor saved her husband's life after determining his defibrillator was poisoning him.

"To me, it seems like people are jumping on the bandwagon because they smell money," said Stein, 77.

Kirk Pinkerton, an attorney who represents Cardiology Associates of Northwest Indiana, said the doctors couldn't comment on specific allegations because of medical privacy laws, but the assertions are unfounded.

"There has been no determination by a medical review panel or a court relating to these 19 cases that there was anything unnecessary or not clinically warranted that were performed by any doctor at Cardiology Associates," Pinkerton said. "These are allegations, and allegations are not facts."

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Health Reporter

Giles is the health reporter for The Times, covering the business of health care as well as consumer and public health. He previously wrote about health for the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. He is a graduate of Northern Illinois University.