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Were Polish doctors paid for corpses?

WARSAW, Poland — Prosecutors have charged two doctors and two ambulance workers with murder for letting patients die or killing them outright in order to collect kickbacks from funeral homes, officials said Wednesday.

The four defendants were charged in a total of 19 deaths. Under the alleged scheme, funeral homes in the central city of Lodz paid the emergency workers bribes to give them early tip-offs about deaths so the homes could snap up clients. Prosecutors say the defendants went a step further and killed patients.

Prosecutors suggested the charges made so far may only be the beginning. Investigators are analyzing thousands of patient deaths in Lodz in recent years, and probes of suspected bribery by ambulance staff are under way in about a dozen other cities.

Judicial spokeswoman Malgorzata Glapska-Dudkiewicz said the investigation is continuing in Lodz.

So far police have not contended that the funeral homes knew that the doctors and ambulance workers may have been killing people. Police have questioned undertakers but so far none has been charged in the scheme.

The two doctors were charged with a total of 14 counts of negligent homicide for allegedly letting patients die and taking money from undertakers, prosecutors said.

A 35-year-old ambulance crew member is accused of killing four patients with injections of a muscle relaxant and informing funeral homes of the deaths in exchange for a total of least $6,200, prosecutors said.

The man, identified only as Andrzej N., previously had been suspected of two such killings.

In the indictments filed Wednesday, a 37-year-old suspect identified as Karol B. was also charged with a similar killing, judicial spokeswoman Malgorzata Glapska-Dudkiewicz said.

Both ambulance crew suspects are charged with murder for motives "deserving special condemnation," which carries a penalty of between 12 years and life in prison, she said. The deaths happened in 2000 and 2001.

In 2002, police launched an investigation into ambulance staff suspected of taking bribes from funeral parlors.

The investigation grabbed national attention after Polish media aired allegations that some crews may have delayed ambulance arrivals or administered drugs that resulted in the death of severely ill patients.

State officials have acknowledged the system is prone to corruption. They blame low pay for government-employed medical workers and a lack of laws regulating intense competition among funeral homes.