Bryce Link, a senior analyst with Buffalo's control board, recently was perusing an old news story. "The Public Cost of Vanity," written five years ago by Buffalo News reporters Sue Schulman and Lou Michel, detailed the then-recent upswing in cosmetic surgery costs for public employees in Erie and Niagara counties.
They quoted Dr. Jeffrey Meilman, a local plastic surgeon, who said: "When I go to national meetings of plastic surgeons, they can't believe there's a cosmetic insurance rider here. The Buffalo area remains an anomaly because it has the rider. The vast majority of other areas never had it."
In 2004, Buffalo Public Schools employees' and their family members' cosmetic surgery procedures cost taxpayers $922,621. Five years later, three separate doctors were each billing the district more than that. One of them, Dr. Kulwant Bhangoo (pictured at right), billed the district $4.3 million for procedures last year.
Board of Education member Chris Jacobs caught wind of Link's analysis and made it his mission to get word out about the huge increase in cosmetic surgery costs. Jacobs says the steep increase in costs over so short a time warrants an investigation. If there's wrongdoing, he says, the authorities should be called in.
"It smacks of abuse," Jacobs said. "We can't afford this."
Phil Rumore, president of the teachers union, says he's not exactly sure what accounts for the dramatic increase. But he says he's ready to give up the cosmetic surgery rider in contract talks. He notes that the teachers haven't had a contract since 2004 -- and says it doesn't make much sense for Jacobs to be blaming employees for using benefits the union is willing to negotiate away.
"The only reason it's still there is because the board hasn't agreed to a new contract with us," Rumore said. "If anybody is responsible for there still being a cosmetic surgery rider, the board is."