On May 15, a well-known North County doctor accepted serious discipline from the Medical Board of California.
Robert Biter, an OB/GYN with offices in Encinitas, will have his medical license suspended for 60 days, and will be on probation for seven years.
Biter must also take special classes to improve his medical skills, and his practice will be supervised by another physician.
One grief-stricken couple says, if they’d known about that discipline, they never would have trusted Dr. Biter with their pregnancy.
Amber and Michael Lukacs had confidence in Dr. Biter when they met him last year, a few months into their pregnancy.
“He was really energetic and charismatic,” Amber told NBC 7 Investigates, in an exclusive interview. “He always gives you a big hug. You really feel like you have a personal connection.”
Amber said her pregnancy was “perfect” in the early months. “I didn’t have morning sickness,” she recalled. “I didn’t have a lot of issues."
Amber and Michael said they initially planned to deliver their baby at Scripps Hospital in Encinitas, but changed their minds when Dr. Biter told them he was building a ”state of the art” birthing center that would give his patients a better, more holistic and natural alternative to hospital birth.
The couple said Biter later told them the birthing center would not be finished by their June 13 due date, and urged them to have a home birth.
"He told us he was going to have a couple mid-wives with him, and we'd have all the things we'd need that you'd have at a hospital, except it would be in the comfort of your own home,” Amber recalled Biter saying.
Amber and Michael took the doctor’s advice, a decision they now say they’ll regret forever.
Twenty-two hours into her painful labor on June 30, Amber said she realized something was very wrong.
She says her baby boy, who the couple had already named Ace, wasn't close to being born.
Amber says she was very weak, and very sick. She remembers feeling extremely hot, then freezing cold, and shaking uncontrollably.
She felt her labor wasn’t progressing, and at one point, she said Dr. Biter’s birthing team could not find her baby's heartbeat, which they’d been checking regularly.
Michael said he, not Doctor Biter, finally made the decision to call an ambulance.
"As soon as I made the call to 911 I think I kind of broke down and just thought that this could be really bad," Michael recalled.
As the ambulance sped towards their home, Amber said Biter and his colleagues kept trying to help.
She now recalls though tears what happened next: “They put me on oxygen and tried to roll me over a couple of times, to see if they could get the baby's heart beat back, and it was gone."
Their baby boy was pronounced dead, at the hospital.
“He died in my belly,” Amber said.
NBC 7 tried to contact Dr. Biter and his attorney for their response to Amber and Michael’s allegations, and for comment on this story. They did not respond to our repeated phone messages and emails.
Consumed by sadness, loss and anger, the couple blames Dr. Biter for their loss.
They shared their story and these photos (courtesy Lukacs family) of their still-born son in hopes of helping other couples avoid an outcome they say robbed them of a baby boy.
Most importantly, they say, they would have switched doctors back in May, if they had known that Dr. Biter had agreed to the Medical Board’s discipline order, and its requirement for a two-month license suspension, seven years’ probation and intensive retraining.
“If I'd known he had anything was going on with the Medical Board, I wouldn't even have gone to him," Amber said.
"I was just like, shocked, that there could be like this trail of paper, up to there, that we know nothing about," Michael, left, added. (photo courtesy of Lukacs family)
The couple actually missed an early warning sign about Biter that would have alerted them to potential problems with the doctor.
In July, 2011, the Medical Board posted its initial negligence accusation against Dr. Biter.
Amber and Michael say they checked Dr. Biter’s profile on the Medical Board’s website in September, while they were researching doctors, but did not see that accusation.
And Dr. Biter, like all California physicians, is under no obligation to inform patients of a pending accusation, because the allegations in that document are unproven, and the doctor has not yet had an opportunity to defend himself, or is in the process of contesting those allegations.
And even after Biter made his agreement with state prosecutors on May 15, he also had no obligation to tell patients about the proposed settlement. By signing that agreement, Biter also acknowledged that the Medical Board could prove the truth of his alleged gross negligence, repeated negligent acts, dishonesty and unprofessional conduct, according to documents posted on the medical board’s website.
That’s because the agreement he signed had to be reviewed and approved by the Medical Board, before it was made public on the Board’s website.
“The members of the Board have the duty to review the accusation and stipulation [agreement between Dr. Biter and prosecutors] to determine if the stipulation is appropriate for the underlying charges and public protection in each instance is addressed,” the Board’s Public Affairs Officer told NBC 7 Investigations in an email.
But in this case, that approval took almost three months.
Documents reveal that Dr. Biter signed the agreement on May 15, but the Medical Board did not approve the settlement until August 10. It then took the Board five more days to post their decision and the documents on the Board’s website.
And that decision did not take effect immediately. According to the documents, Dr. Biter’s suspension and probation start on September 7, almost four months after Dr. Biter accepted the discipline.
Amber and Michael say that system must change, for the safety of patients. They want the Medical Board to approve the settlements faster, and perhaps require doctors to inform patients that they have signed a discipline order.
Attorney Robert Vaage agrees that the Medical Board should act quicker, when patient safety is at stake.
"Whether a week, ten days, two weeks, you would think they'd be able to get that done, instead of this four month delay."
Vaage is a medical malpractice expert, who is now talking with Amber and Michael about a possible lawsuit against Dr. Biter.
Vaage and his potential clients also think the Medical Board’s discipline of Dr. Biter is not strong enough.
Amber and Michael think his license should be revoked, so he’s never allowed to practice medicine again in California.
Vaage says a one-year suspension would send a more appropriate message to Dr. Biter about the seriousness of the patient care issues outlined in the board’s accusation.
But Dr. Ted Mazer, past president of the San Diego County Medical Society and vice-speaker of the California Medical Association, said the suspension of a doctor’s privilege to practice medicine sends a strong message.
“This is not slapping a doctor on the wrist,” Mazer told NBC 7 Investigates. “I think the Medical Board is saying, ‘You came mighty close to losing your license forever. You’ve done some bad things.’”
While not addressing the specifics of Dr. Biter’s case, Mazer said requirements for clinic training and supervision, which must be paid by the doctor, are “not a slap on the wrist… There’s a tremendous impact on the doctor. There’s a time impact. There’s a social impact. I mean, this is hard for a doctor to do.”
But Dr. Mazer stresses that the suspension and probation are needed to protect the public from a doctor who has acknowledged such serious professional shortcomings.
Mazer says doctors who are on probation risk immediate and severe action by the Medical Board if they violate that probation. Mazer says the Medical Board’s willingness to act helps protect the public from malpractice.
Amber and Michael hope the debate continues, and leads to changes that help consumers and patients.
"I just wouldn't want any other families to go through this, or babies to die,” Amber said. “Because it's really sad.”