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For AIG's Man in Jordan, War Becomes a Business Opportunity

Emad HatabahAMMAN, Jordan—For Emad Hatabah, the war in Iraq became a business opportunity.

As AIG's chief representative in Jordan, he was responsible for coordinating the care for hundreds of Iraqis who had been injured while working under contract for U.S. troops as linguists, truck drivers and other jobs.

He fulfilled his functions by sending business to himself, his friends and business associates, according to interviews and records. For instance, Hatabah created his own air ambulance service in July 2006, a company called Arab Assist, which AIG hired to transport injured patients from Iraq to Jordan, records show.

"They needed someone who has lots of connections. I'm a doctor with lots of connections," Hatabah said during an interview at a hotel on a street crowded with hospitals and medical offices in Amman.

But those connections have raised questions about whether Hatabah acted in the best interests of the injured Iraqis or of his ad-hoc medical network. Taxpayers may ultimately pay the bill for such care under a U.S. law which allows insurance firms such as AIG to seek full reimbursement for the cost of treating civilian contractors injured in combat.

Hatabah sent scores of interpreters and other Iraqi hires to a Jordanian hospital called Al Khalidi, where the chief of the intensive care unit was a business partner and college friend, Nael Abu Khaff. He called it the best hospital to treat them. While they were waiting for care, Hatabah had the interpreters stay at hotels owned by friends, he said.

In an interview at Al Khalidi hospital, Abu Khaff confirmed his business dealings with Hatabah, but said that his hospital was chosen to care for the patients because it was one of the best in Jordan.

"We were the provider of medical treatment to these patients. I'm not an insurance doctor," Abu Khaff said.

Hatabah also negotiated with Jordan’s immigration authorities to arrange for their visas, worked with local banks to set up accounts for the interpreters and obtained rehabilitation therapy and prosthetic devices.

Colleen Driscoll, a former official for defense contractor L-3, questioned Hatabah's choices. For instance, Al Khalidi hospital is a well-respected local institution, but it has not been accredited by the U.S.-based Joint Commission International--the gold standard certification held by other Jordanian hospitals.

Hatabah also placed interpreters with no legs in hotels that had no handicapped access, Driscoll said, and their prosthetics were heavy and fit poorly.

"Hatabah was a businessman. It was all about making money," Driscoll said.

Hatabah acknowledged that some patients were placed in a hotel that was not equipped to handle people with disabilities. However, he said he was forced to relocate the patients quickly by L-3, and that the facilities were upgraded as soon as possible. Hatabah also said the prosthetics that he purchased were top quality.

Jordanian doctors who reviewed medical records for some of the patients questioned some charges as high. The cost of most medical procedures in Jordan is set by a standardized fee schedule issued by the local medical association.

One record indicates that AIG paid $29,105 for two surgeries to remove stitches and other "medical expenses" for a patient whose care was being coordinated by Hatabah. Jordanian doctors who reviewed the bill said such charges would normally amount to around $3,500.

"They act like a team and they want to manage all this number of patients. This makes you suspicious," said one doctor, who did not want to be identified for fear of offending AIG.

All told, Hatabah estimated that he had overseen the care for more than 400 civilian workers from Iraq and a handful of other nearby countries such as Jordan. Hatabah said that he worked under a "mutual understanding" with AIG in which the company paid him a certain fee per patient per day. He declined to reveal specifics, but said he made at most about $100,000 a year working for AIG.

He also said that AIG paid his doctors rates far above normal for Jordan. He said that AIG officials told him that they wanted to pay top dollar to obtain the best care.

Hatabah acknowledged that neither AIG nor the federal government had accounting mechanisms to oversee the network that he created.

"Is there a guarantee that I didn’t take a percentage? No, there is no guarantee other than my word. It's my reputation. Is there a way for AIG to make sure that I didn't get a percentage if I referred to Al Khalidi? They can't."

While AIG paid for Hatabah's services, the company can seek reimbursement under a U.S. law known as the War Hazards Compensation Act.

The Act, passed in the 1940s, allows insurers to seek payment from the Labor Department for medical costs and disability payments associated with combat-injured civilian contractors. It also provides companies an additional 15% to pay for the cost of handling the claim.

As of May 2009, the department had paid AIG $5.7 million for 77 claims, according to documents released under the Freedom of Information Act. It is not clear why AIG has submitted so few claims for reimbursement, given that hundreds of contractors have been injured or killed in combat.

AIG officials declined to answer specific questions. Hatabah said he had no knowledge of the War Hazards Compensation Act.

"I believe strongly that these people received the best we know, the best we can and without taking sides," Hatabah said. "I do believe that AIG tried their best to give these patients good and fair treatment."

However, Hatabah's former clients have complained that he did not fully inform them of their rights. Under the law, injured workers are allowed to choose their own physician. Few Iraqi workers were aware that they had this right, and said they relied on Hatabah for care.

Rafid Kully, 32, was injured in a road accident while traveling with the U.S. Marines as an interpreter. He said the orthopedist brought in by Hatabah botched an operation on his foot, leaving him with a permanent limp. When he attempted to get treatment from other doctors, AIG denied his requests, he said.

In the interview, Hatabah said he had advised Kully against the procedure. He acknowledged that Kully’s surgery did not achieve its intended results.

Now living in North Carolina as a refugee, Kully continues to battle AIG for medical treatment.

"We thought our companies would help. We thought if you proved that something was wrong, they would fix it. But it was all about money. Nobody cared about us," Kully said. "Everybody was happy with the situation. The doctors were making millions. AIG was making millions. The companies did not have to pay a lot. Everybody was happy. But us."

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