Healthcare

New York Allowed a Sexual Predator to Practice Medicine for Decades

The case of Nasim Haider shows just how little oversight the New York State Department of Health has over doctor misconduct

by and

On Christmas Eve 1995, Nasim Haider, then a physician at Mary Immaculate Hospital in Queens, allegedly asked a patient who had come into the emergency room for an exam whether she “engaged in oral sex and whether she swallowed sperm.” During the exam, Haider, who at that time had only been licensed to practice medicine in New York for about a year, then allegedly rubbed her genitals “for several minutes.”

This incident, along with two others, was outlined in the New York State Department of Health’s 2004 investigation of Haider, performed by the agency’s Office of Professional Medical Conduct. A second patient cited in the investigation alleged that in 2001 Haider placed his hands on her buttocks and breasts, and that Haider placed her hands on his erect penis, according to state health department records. The third patient alleged that in 2002 Haider squeezed her breasts, rubbed her thighs and vaginal area, and pushed his groin into her buttocks while he had an erection.

As a result of the investigation, state health authorities put Haider on probation, charged him a $10,000 fine, and suspended him for four months. But he kept his license, and after those four months he continued to practice — and to sexually assault patients. His conduct would come under scrutiny several times afterward, but it would take the state of New York almost fifteen years after that first investigation to finally revoke his license.

In total, Haider racked up almost thirty abuse and misconduct charges at three different medical practices in New York City, including a 2012 arrest for sexual abuse and forcible touching.

He preyed on vulnerable immigrant women who came to him because he was listed as a federally approved “civil surgeon” who could provide exams needed to obtain legal residency. Sometimes, according to state health department records, he abused the women during their exams. Other times he offered them jobs and then victimized them when he had them alone in his clinic in Corona, Queens.

An awning reading “Corona Medical Care” still hangs in front of Haider’s clinic on Roosevelt Avenue, the main commercial drag in a neighborhood in which two-thirds of the population was born outside the United States. Haider is thought to be one of them: He has told people that he was born in Pakistan — although that information can’t be confirmed since very few details of his personal life are publicly available. He studied in Mexico and received his degree from a medical school in the Dominican Republic. He had three residencies at two different places in New York in the early 1990s. 

“At first he seemed nice. Very quiet, very nice,” says an employee at the pharmacy next door to Haider’s clinic who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation. Now, though, “everybody in the neighborhood knows” about Haider’s behavior. “He’s senseless. He doesn’t care about respect.”

Not one specific agency is to blame for the fact that Haider was allowed to continue practicing despite so many allegations against him. Rather, the negligence appears to be the result of a systematic breakdown inside the New York State Department of Health that led to an abusive doctor retaining his license for years while the agency charged with enforcing professional standards failed to notice.

Haider’s medical license is under the authority of a multilayered system. His license, like every other doctor’s, was granted by the state education department. Control over doctor discipline, though, is split between two agencies in the state health department — the Office of Professional Medical Conduct, which investigates reports of incompetent or unethical doctors, and the Board for Professional Medical Conduct (BPMC), which adjudicates those cases and decides on punishments.

Additionally, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services listed Haider as a physician approved to perform immigration exams. Doctors apply to be added to the list, but the responsibility for removing them if they lose their license falls to the federal government. Citizenship and immigration services relies on state medical boards to determine which doctors have lost their eligibility, according to an agency spokesperson.

The BPMC finally moved to strip Haider of his medical license last summer after its 2013 investigation revealed several instances of misconduct between 2007 and 2013. His license was revoked in a 2017 hearing, pending an appeal. (The state health department referred questions about Haider’s disciplinary history to the Office of Professional Medical Conduct, which confirmed the timeline of events but declined to comment about the years-long gaps between Haider’s rule-breaking and his punishments.)

The Village Voice’s first of several visits to Haider’s office attempting to get a comment from him occurred last October, while the appeal was still pending. The only evidence reporters found of his expulsion was a small, handwritten “For Rent” sign hung above the door. The office was unlocked, the reception desk was staffed, and alphabetized medical records were filed on shelves. Corona residents were still seeing his advertisements in Spanish-language newspapers and on TV during telenovelas.

When the Voice asked Haider in November about his medical practice, he denied being Nasim Haider and identified himself first as Kadir Sultan, the building superintendent, and then, on a subsequent visit to the clinic, as Sakander Mirza, also the building’s super. He later called back and said never to contact him again, then left an obscenity-laced voicemail. Since then, his attorney has not responded to several phone calls.

Haider’s appeal process lasted until February 7, when a review board unanimously rejected his petition. Finally, New York had determined that Haider was done practicing medicine.

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Haider’s case is egregious, but not unprecedented. A broader examination of disciplinary records shows that the state health department has allowed doctors to keep practicing even when they are repeat offenders who have admitted to misconduct ranging from fraud to sexual abuse of patients to narcotics distribution.

For example, there’s the psychiatrist in Glens Falls, New York, who was charged with drunk driving in 2001 but told medical officials later that year that he’d never been charged with a crime. It would take seven years and two more drunk driving offenses for him to appear in front of a disciplinary board. The board put him on probation, but he didn’t lose his license until 2015four years after he stopped responding to his probation officer. There’s the former doctor in Syosset, New York, who had his license revoked for fraud in 1996, was allowed to practice again in 2003 while under probation, and was stripped of it again in 2017 after he spent two years writing more than 10,000 illegitimate prescriptions for close to a million opioid pills. There’s the osteopathic doctor, of Great Neck, who admitted to verbally harassing a patient and sending her inappropriate text messages in 2013, was fined $10,000 and required to be chaperoned any time he saw a female patient, and then broke that rule two years later. His license is still active.

“The medical boards need to get their priorities right,” says Dr. Azza AbuDagga, a researcher at the Public Citizen advocacy group who helped analyze a national index of physicians who repeatedly abuse patients. “The priority is to protect the public. The interest of the patient should supersede that of the physician in any investigation.” AbuDagga says medical boards, themselves composed largely of doctors, have become a way for physicians to avoid accountability, rather than to enforce a zero-tolerance policy she favors.

New York’s medical conduct office, required by law to investigate every complaint it receives, looked into 10,206 cases of reported misconduct in 2016, the last year for which data is available. In 333 of those cases the board imposed what it called “serious sanctions.” Those include revocation of a doctor’s license, but they can also represent suspension or restriction of a license, both of which allow a doctor found guilty of misconduct to continue practicing medicine.

Defenders of the policy say that the system works to the public’s benefit. “I wouldn’t want to take out of practice every doctor who slipped,” says Andrew Knoll, a former doctor and current attorney specializing in healthcare law. “The majority of discipline cases are good doctors who made a mistake. When they’ve worked through it, they’re good, productive members of society. As a citizen of New York, I would not want to lose those doctors.”

Haider, though, is a doctor Knoll would be OK losing. “This guy is something else,” he says.

Haider skirted trouble not only with state agencies, but also with the law. In 2002, Ximena Fragosa visited him in Corona for an immigration exam. He allegedly went from cleaning her ears to attacking and sexually assaulting her, according to records from a malpractice lawsuit she filed against him. Fragosa won a decision, but an appellate court overturned the ruling on a technicality. The court determined that Haider was not liable for malpractice because the injuries Fragosa accused Haider of inflicting on her were part of an assault and not a medical procedure. Fragosa took no further legal action after losing the appeal.

Fragosa’s allegations are consistent with some of those detailed in the 2004 Office of Professional Medical Conduct query that resulted in his first suspension. It’s possible that the malpractice suit was what led to that investigation, although no one in the state health department would confirm to the Voice that Fragosa was one of the three unnamed female complainants.

Aside from the suspension and fine, the state health department forced Haider to sign a consent agreement, which allows doctors to accept a punishment but not exactly admit guilt. In signing the agreement, Haider acknowledged that he could not defend himself against “at least one” of the charges the state brought, though he did not say which one.

The agreement required him to be chaperoned for “each and every examination” of a female patient for the remainder of his career in New York. The chaperone needed to be a licensed healthcare worker who had read Haider’s disciplinary history and who would keep a log confirming her presence at every appointment Haider had with a woman. Like Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics doctor now sentenced to between 100 and 235 years in prison, who continued to abuse young women at Michigan State University where he worked as a sports doctor after being subjected to a similar chaperoning requirement, Haider simply ducked the restriction and continued to see female patients alone and unsupervised.

A Voice analysis of New York State health department records found that 35 doctors have been subjected to chaperone requirements in the last ten years. Of those, four have since surrendered their licenses or had them revoked for breaking the rules of their consent agreements. 

“It’s hard to know whether they’re doing any good,” Guy Regev, a physician and malpractice attorney in Brooklyn, says of chaperone requirements. “It seems like nobody really enforces these agreements at all.” Supervision by a chaperone, he says, is almost impossible to guarantee, short of having a state inspector in the doctor’s office on a daily basis, “and that’s not what I see happening.”

In addition to his New York certification, Haider had also earned medical licenses in Florida and Wisconsin. As a result of New York’s 2004 investigation, Wisconsin ordered Haider to surrender his license in 2005 and forbade him from ever applying for a medical license in the state again. Florida responded to Haider’s 2004 disciplinary hearings in New York by suspending him indefinitely. (The state did not update Haider’s license status after his New York certification was stripped in 2017: He’s still listed as “suspended” in Florida.) 

Curiously, New York’s investigation had resulted in harsher penalties for Haider outside the state. In New York, Haider was allowed to continue practicing and seeing patients until 2017.  

Haider’s failure to adhere to the chaperone clause was discovered only after police investigated an incident that would finally lead to the chain of events that caused his New York license to be revoked several years later.

In March 2012, a young woman identified in public records only as “Patient H” told the NYPD she had gone to Haider’s office in late February for an immigration physical. The woman, who only spoke Spanish and was unemployed, said she chose his office because he had the cheapest price, according to public records. The woman said Haider performed the exam unchaperoned, and then offered her an evening job cleaning his office. The young woman said she was so happy to have a job that she went out and bought herself a new uniform.  

On her second night of work, the woman said Haider invited her to sit and watch TV with him in a room in his office. While she was watching TV, according to public documents, she said he took her hand and “placed it on his exposed penis,” and when she tried to get away she said he “grabbed her buttocks and breast and attempted to kiss her.”

The woman broke free, went directly to the local police station, and reported the incident. Afterward, according to public records, she asked her husband to take her to a nearby hospital so she could “feel safe”; there she told doctors she was scared and anxious after being sexually assaulted. Charges were filed and Haider was arrested and booked on March 8, 2012, for sexual abuse and forcible touching. But the criminal case was dismissed six months later when the woman did not appear for a court date.

The state health department only learned of Haider’s sexual assault arrest in April 2013, when the agency reviewed a routine report from a federal database. The professional conduct office assigned two investigators, Annette Palk and April Soltren, to the case, who interviewed Patient H about the incident. According to the health department’s report, the woman said she went to counseling, but eventually stopped because it was traumatizing to retell the story each time. The report also noted she told investigators that she could no longer bring herself to even go near Haider’s office.

As part of the investigation, Palk and Soltren also made an unannounced visit to Haider’s clinic.

According to the report, Haider did not deny having a professional relationship with Patient H, but disputed her account of the assault, saying she made up false accusations after he fired her for “cleaning with a product that was ruining the paint on the walls.”

The two investigators also inspected Haider’s office, which they found to be unsanitary and dangerous. Used surgical “sharps” were kept in open plastic tubs on the floor and spent needles were placed in a cinnamon spice jar. The sink was unusable, they found, and the refrigerator where medicine and blood samples were stored had no thermometer. The investigators also found problems with the way Haider examined patients: in just one visit, they recorded five patients whom the doctor saw without taking vital signs and six he saw without taking a medical history. He also prescribed drugs known to cause pregnancy complications to young women without checking if they were pregnant.

Additionally, investigators found Haider had been consistently violating the conditions of his chaperone requirement. Palk later told a health department panel that when she arrived at his clinic in the morning, Haider had already seen two female patients but could not produce the logs showing that he had been accompanied by a chaperone. When questioned further, Palk said, Haider was unable to produce any chaperone logs from 2012 or 2013.

Instead, the investigators found, Haider had used people he called “chaperones” but whom the state never knew existed. Haider was supposed to tell his chaperones about the allegations of abuse against him and give them copies of his consent order, but the people he employed as chaperones testified at a state hearing that they never heard the abuse allegations or knew of the existence of Haider’s consent order

And yet, despite all this evidence, and Haider’s prior history, the state health department did not hold a disciplinary hearing until four years after its investigation began. In that time, Haider kept practicing and seeing patients. The state department declined to comment on why it took so long to hold a hearing.

Finally, in early 2017, Haider had his reckoning. For four days across three months (March 1, March 29, April 27, May 4), the state medical board met inside the federal office building in downtown Manhattan to hear the case against Haider. In a hearing room, witnesses for and against the doctor testified while Haider looked on. Patient H, who did not appear at Haider’s court date in the sexual assault criminal case, and had told investigators she could not stand to go near his office, gave an account of the incident that the hearing committee found “credible, consistent, and compelling.” The committee concluded Haider used information he learned about the patient during his unchaperoned physical to “lure” her to his office and prey on her, according to a report from the hearing. As a result, his license was revoked, pending a possible appeal.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services still listed Haider as a doctor approved to perform immigration exams for weeks after the hearing. Until January, the federal government updated its list of qualified doctors twice a year, an agency spokesperson said, but now updates it every three months. “That could still mean two months and 29 days where a doctor is on the list after they’ve lost their license,” the spokesperson acknowledged.

Even while the disciplinary process was ongoing, Haider continued his abusive behavior. A woman who worked the reception desk at Haider’s clinic in 2017, who spoke to the Voice on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution, said that in her second week on the job Haider told her to sleep with him in exchange for work.

“He threatened me, told me that the worst could happen to me,” she says. “I kept calm and played dumb, and as soon as I could, I ran out of that clinic and left crying. I felt dirty.”

The woman, an immigrant, said she did not report Haider of any misconduct because she was scared. It’s impossible to know if other women might also have felt too intimidated to report Haider’s misconduct.

“The doctor-patient relationship already is an imbalanced power relationship,” says Michael Carome, director of the health research group at Public Citizen.

Doctors can take advantage of that imbalance to exploit and abuse patients, Carome says, particularly when a patient is a member of an already marginalized group, like those who visited Haider for immigration physicals or those who worked for him. Those patients may be afraid to complain about unsafe conditions or report medical malpractice for fear of jeopardizing their immigration status.

And there is less incentive to do so when those doctors are allowed by New York to continue practicing despite years of misconduct.  

Additional reporting by Miamichelle Abad.

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