- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2002

LODZ, Poland Polish authorities are investigating reports of a macabre scheme in which morticians paid cash for bodies, prompting doctors to kill patients and ambulance crews to dally so the patient would die en route to a hospital.

Each body today fetches about $430, nearly a month's wages for the average worker, according to Polish newspapers, which have dubbed the scandal "coffingate."

Health Minister Mariusz Lapinski confirmed the investigation in an interview.

"The problem is a lack of supervision," Mr. Lapinski said. "As everywhere, you have good people and bad people."

Patients who made it to a hospital alive are believed to have received lethal injections of the muscle relaxant Pavulon. But police spokesman Jaroslaw Berger said other drugs might also have been used.

Of three physicians implicated, only one, nicknamed the "Angel of Death," has been detained, according to a source familiar with the investigation.

As for the ambulance crews, they would respond slowly to urgent calls the more urgent the call, the slower they moved.

In one case, they stopped at a McDonald's for a hamburger before picking up a dying patient.

Though no one has been charged with murder, 15 persons including doctors, undertakers, dispatchers and one orderly are facing bribery and corruption charges. All but three are in jail.

In Lodz, Poland's second-largest city with about 800,000 people, 20 investigators from the police department's organized crime unit are currently targeting about 50 suspects, said Mr. Berger, the police spokesman.

"Whoever is involved, it will come out," Mr. Berger said. "Whoever committed a crime, he'll be stopped."

For now, accusations of doctors and ambulance staff killing people are confined to Lodz, about 80 miles southwest of Warsaw. But the practice of selling confidential information about people's deaths to funeral homes appears to be a national problem. The state subsidizes private funerals by about $1,000 each.

The scandal first became public late last month in a report by Gazeta Wyborcza, the country's leading newspaper. The newspaper said that the practice began in the early 1990s, when ambulance worker Woldzimierz Sumera quit to start his own business that transferred bodies from hospitals and homes to funeral homes.

Mr. Sumera would reportedly give his ambulance buddies vodka or cognac whenever they called with a body. But soon others started body-moving businesses of their own and started paying. The price shot up from about $100 a body in 1995 to nearly $400 today, the Gazeta reported.

Besides killing patients, some doctors are also suspected of blackmailing families by threatening to declare deaths of their loved ones "suspicious," unless they employ the funeral home of the doctor's choice.

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