Thousands go untreated after drugs, equipment found useless
THE man behind a high-profile medical mission to China is being investigated after drugs and equipment allegedly worth US$3.5 million (HK$27 million) were found to be virtually useless.
Californian doctor Mel Alexander promised to treat thousands of sick and impoverished peasants in Sichuan province with his team of 250 doctors and medical specialists.
But he was labelled a conman this week after mission doctors unloaded the aid shipment to find most of the drugs had passed their use-by date, while equipment such as X-ray tables and foetal heart monitors was damaged beyond repair.
The doctors, who are poised to take legal action, also claim Dr Alexander swindled them out of thousands of dollars by charging unexplained registration and administration fees, and selling them medical kits donated free to the mission.
The claims have prompted the US-based missionary association which supplied the drugs to cut links with Dr Alexander while it investigates his mission.
'This man has conned the doctors, the agencies, the airlines and the Chinese Government,' said Kathleen Ellsworth, a spokeswoman for US aircraft manufacturer Boeing, which helped fly the aid shipment into China for free.
'Alexander should be stopped before he does more damage.' Dr Alexander, announcing the mission at a press conference at Hong Kong's Mandarin Oriental Hotel early last month, claimed his Christian Medical Association (CMA) was sending 170 health workers and interpreters to Yibin, a town of 1.5 million people, at the invitation of the Chinese Government.
The team of dentists, general practitioners, surgeons and specialists expected to treat more than 32,000 patients and extract 15,000 teeth during their 15-day stay.
Cash for the venture came from 'various sources', said Dr Alexander. Some medicines were donated, others had to be bought, while all the medical staff paid him for their flights and hotels.
But only 88 of the promised 250 doctors arrived in Yibin, with many now claiming they spent at least US$3,500 on the 'basic' trip - including a US$998 'administration fee', a US$250 'registration fee' and a US$260 'price increase' which Dr Alexander said was due to 'inflation in China'.
Most doctors also paid between US$250 and US$300 for a medical licence which they say was never purchased, and they were forced to pay for them again.
'Every time we turned around he was asking for more money,' said Calvin Howe, a consultant with relief organisation World Vision.
'A lot of us had reservations about him before we went, but we really wanted to go on the trip.' Thomas Wu, of Seattle-based Regency Pacific Tours, organised the mission's travel arrangements. He claims Dr Alexander made 'at least' US$1,000 on each person who made the trip.
The nightmare began on September 11 when the doctors arrived in the Sichuan capital of Chengdu to find that just a third of the medical staff promised by Dr Alexander had arrived. But matters got worse when crates containing the medical supplies were opened.
'I walked into the warehouse and it was really embarrassing,' said orthodontist Ralph Francis.
'The stuff was broken or dirty. Eighty per cent of the drugs were outdated, a lot of it dated July and August 1994.
'We took an inventory, but a huge amount of goods had to be destroyed. I mean there were kitchen magazines, old clothes, encyclopaedias . . .' It was then the doctors began to realise they had also been duped.
'Some boxes which the doctors had bought from Dr Alexander as medical kits for US$350 each, were just stocked with out-of-date drugs and average household drugs like cough medicine,' said Mr Howe.
'We later discovered that these kits had been donated to the mission.' The American Missionary Assistance Programme (MAP), which donated the medical kits, was told they were for a trip beginning on July 15.
'We made it clear to him that they were short-dated and that he shouldn't be using them or distributing them anywhere near the end of August,' said Garnett Slatton, director of MAP's international medical supply group.
Aid groups were also required to contact MAP if any medicines were 'lost, damaged, expired or destroyed' before or after arriving at their destination, Mr Slatton said.
By September 29, Dr Alexander had not done this so MAP launched its own probe into his activities.
'The allegations are very serious so we are trying to be as thorough as we can,' Mr Slatton added.
'His representative signed an agreement saying the drugs would not be sold and that they would be used responsibly.
'If he was using expired medicines, that violates his relationship with us. If he was trying to sell them, that clearly violates his relationship with us.' According to witnesses in Yibin, the equipment provided by Dr Alexander was in no better shape than the medicine.
'The X-ray table and its developing table were full of rust,' said Mr Howe.
'The operating table was broken and needed repairs, and the wheelchairs had burn marks and were about 20 years old.' Dr Alexander and Mr Wu were asked by Sichuan government officials to explain.
'They [the officials] were very upset and felt very embarrassed. They said it was an insult and a betrayal,' Mr Wu said. 'They indicated that the true worth of the drugs and equipment was about one per cent of what had been indicated to them.' Later estimates put the value of usable drugs and equipment at about US$50,000 . . . still a far cry from the US$3.5 million claimed by Dr Alexander.
'Dr Alexander continued to insist that the medicines were worth that much money on the retail market in the US,' Mr Wu said.
'He said the drugs, which had expired two or three months ago, should be good for at least three to six months. He said that in the US this was valid.' This was rejected by the American Food and Drug Administration. A spokesman said drugs past their expiry date in America were reclassified as 'unapproved' and therefore illegal.
'There is no way we would ever say drugs can be used after their expiry date. In fact, the World Health Organisation guideline is that any drug being donated should be donated one year before the expiration date,' he said.
During the meeting with Sichuan officials, Dr Alexander was adamant some items among the medical equipment were worth at least US$10,000, Mr Wu added.
'The Chinese got very angry because they knew it was donated,' he said.
'I had gone with him to World Concern where we picked 18 items which were brought to China. We paid a US$53 'donation' charge for the whole lot.' Seattle-based World Concern confirmed last week they had dealt with Dr Alexander, providing him with two pallets of medical supplies in July worth about US$10,000.
But the spokeswoman said the charity had a complex checking system to verify the credentials of all applicants, and clearly Dr Alexander had passed.
Dr Alexander left China on September 15, just a couple of days after arriving in Yibin, as more and more mission members dissociated themselves from the project.
His parting shot was to issue doctors with a 'legal paper' accusing them of 'illegal seizure of the' CMA, 'placing the lives of CMA members in jeopardy', causing a 'mutiny in a foreign country', and equally bizarrely, 'disobeying a direct order'.
Speaking from his office in California last week, Dr Alexander insisted he had done nothing improper.
'This is a witch hunt. These are all lies,' he said.
He denied shipping any empty boxes and said other people, including doctors, had sent packages to be shipped and he did not check them.
'There are physicians that take drugs over there with them and they always have some that are out of date. We can't control that,' he said.
'Also, the medicine that Mr Howe said was out of date was not out of date. They had a September 30 date on them.
'We shipped the drugs from MAP in August. We left those drugs in Chengdu to be used in August. Because some of them showed up in another city, Yibin, is not my problem,' he said, further muddying the waters.
'MAP will tell you that I bought and paid for 14 physician's kits, at US$350 each, that contained US$5,000 worth of medicine, enough to treat 600 people. None of those had expired dates.
'Mr Calvin Howe is a lunatic. If Mr Howe says there were only US$50,000 worth of medicines then he's a bald-faced liar. I have proof.' Dr Alexander also defended the fees charged to mission members.
'Our corporation has a right to charge whatever it will. If someone wants to go they pay whatever the charge,' he said.
'If you make a business deal and someone wants to go along with it, they go along with it. If they don't want to they don't have to.'