Dr. Bombastic

Dallas oncologist Dennis Birenbaum claims he's been given a bad rap by the state and media. Now he's going to make them pay.

Birenbaum may have prevailed in court, but the fallout from all the unflattering publicity crippled his practice, he says.

According to the doctor, 17 managed health-care providers dropped him as an approved provider within a few months of the board's vote. Six hospitals in the Dallas area declined to extend his privileges to practice.

"Before, we were averaging 15 new consults in Tarrant County a month and 25 in Dallas County. After the articles, within a month, we were down to two in Tarrant County and five to seven in Dallas," he says.

"We were the envy of a lot of competing oncology groups, and all of a sudden we were decimated. The doctors here [at RHD] who knew me stuck by me, and a few at Baylor-Richardson didn't think I was guilty. A lot of other doctors just stopped referring patients."

Citing those losses as damages, Birenbaum hired Stephen Malouf, a well-regarded Dallas lawyer, and filed suit against Aetna. "Dennis has some wrinkles, but the fact is, they went after the wrong guy," Malouf says. "He's as tenacious a human being as you will ever meet. He's a good doctor and a decent human being. A lot of people find him loud, arrogant, and obnoxious, but it doesn't matter.

"Aetna wanted to send a message: 'You prepare your bills the way we want you to, or we'll go after you.' A lot of doctors don't want to get in a fight with a huge insurance company, so they go along."

Regardless of the appeals court's "fussing," Birenbaum was largely vindicated, Malouf says. And Aetna's insurer wasn't in the mood to fight. "Our insurance company decided to settle," recalls Brady, the Aetna spokeswoman. Birenbaum had demanded $30 million; he took Malouf's advice and accepted Aetna's offer to settle for $3 million. "One of the three goes to the lawyers, 40 percent goes to taxes, and I had borrowed a lot of money to keep my practice going," says Birenbaum. "I owed."

For most people, that probably would have been the end of it. By 1994, Birenbaum was again generating business, and even some positive publicity. In September of that year, Dallas City Manager John Ware announced that he was undergoing treatment for myeloma, a cancerous disease affecting plasma cells in the blood, and that Birenbaum was handling his treatment.

"We pulled ourselves up, and we're doing very well now; we're very busy," says Dr. Eugene Wysznski, who met Birenbaum at M.D. Anderson and joined his practice in 1993, the man's darkest year.

Indeed, Birenbaum is currently associated with nine area hospitals, including Presbyterian Hospital of Plano, Baylor/Richardson Medical Center, Mesquite Community Hospital, Tri-City Hospital, Dallas/Fort Worth Medical Center, Columbia Medical Center of Arlington, Arlington Memorial Hospital, RHD Memorial Medical Center, and Columbia Medical Center of Las Colinas.

And he has three offices--in Arlington, in Farmers Branch, and in Richardson.

Birenbaum's 7,539-square-foot mansion on an exclusive block of Normandy Avenue in Highland Park--an ostentatious number with six fireplaces, six full baths, pickled wood floors, servants' quarters, and a pool--is valued on county tax rolls at $1.7 million. He purchased it in July 1996, when he traded up from a lesser 5,746-square-foot cottage on St. John's Drive, a few blocks away. State records also list Birenbaum as the owner of a small fleet of expensive vehicles: a 1996 Mercedes-Benz SL500 roadster, a 1997 Mercedes S500 coupe, a 1994 Jaguar XJ6 sedan, a Range Rover, a 1996 Lexus LX450 sedan, and a 1998 Dodge 1-ton pickup.

Nevertheless, Birenbaum is still talking about conspiracies and antisemitism and what he suspects is a burning desire by the state medical board to "fix my clock."

As a friend who asked to remain unnamed put it: "If Dennis were a tall, slim, Waspish-looking Baptist who kept his mouth shut, he wouldn't have 90 percent of the problems he's had. When he applied at Columbia-Irving [for medical privileges last year] and got turned down, instead of respectfully asking for a hearing on an appeal, he tells them he wants a hearing 'so this ridiculous decision can be set aside.' He can piss people off, and when you do that, you give them a reason to want to nail you."

Says Birenbaum, when asked why he doesn't simply sit back and enjoy his relative success: "You mean to say that a successful man has to suffer injustices, that just because I live in Highland Park this is right? I should have a great practice, but it's gone."

Why? Perhaps that spiteful database is to blame.
As of August 1, 1995, the day the Texas Supreme Court declined to review the case against Birenbaum and let him off the hook for good, Birenbaum's record should have been cleared. Early last year, though, he learned from his receptionist that a potential patient from out of state had checked the doctor's credentials through a national database run by the American Medical Association.

It had reported that Birenbaum's license remained under a cloud, that the board had voted to revoke his right to practice, and that the issue remained under appeal.

Birenbaum had run into the scarlet letter of the electronic age. Some faraway data bank is lying about you, and you don't even know it.

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