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Past blunders cost hospital in ER lawsuit

A group of emergency room doctors has been awarded $1.6 million in a lawsuit against Haywood Regional Medical Center.

Haywood Emergency Physicians was ousted by the hospital in 2006 and replaced with a corporate physician staffing outfit before the group’s contract had expired. The group sued for breech of contract, unfair and deceptive trade practices and conspiracy in restraint of trade.

The case was heard before a three-member panel of arbitrators in mid-January. Much like a judge’s ruling in court case, the decision was binding, meaning neither side had the option of accepting or rejecting the amount of the award.

At the hearing, the hospital failed to produce any evidence that it had a good reason for ousting the ER doctors. As a result, the hospital owed the ER doctors for 18-months of lost income, the arbitrators ruled. The award will come out of the hospital’s bottom line.

Attorney Bill Cannon, who represented the group of doctors, said they were pleased with the amount. The hospital offered to settle out of court two days before the arbitration hearing, but the physicians rejected the offer as too low.

Mark Jaben, one of the ER doctors with Haywood Emergency Physicians, said the reasons given by the hospital leadership for ousting the emergency doctors at the time were “smokescreens.”

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“Why did he want us out? It is a really good question I think a lot of people would say it boiled down to wanting power and control,” Jaben said. “We were in the whistle blower position.”

The lawsuit dates back to 2006 when the hospital was under different leadership. The hospital has undergone a massive transition since then, including a nearly clean sweep of top leaders and the governing hospital board.

The hospital failed federal inspections in 2007, causing it to lose its Medicare and Medicaid status and triggering an exodus of private insurers as well. The hospital essentially shut its doors for five months except for the most basic services.

As a result, the hospital leaders who had ousted the ER doctors the previous year got ousted themselves. It became clear that many of the issues raised by the ousted ER doctors — issues hospital leadership tried to silence — were in fact true.

The ER physicians enjoyed an outpouring of community support as well from those urging hospital administration not to get rid of them. But a few who believed the accusations against the group espoused by Rice apologized after the unraveling of his administration.

“People said ‘You were telling the truth and we are sorry we didn’t listen to you,’” Jaben said.

Jaben said it is a shame the community had to go through such a cataclysmic event to realize there were problems at the top.

“The full cost is enormous, well more than just the amount of the award in this one case. We trust that this final action will free the hospital of any remaining vestiges of the old guard and conclude this sad tale,” Jaben wrote in a group statement from the doctors.

Jaben said the hospital board at the time was led down the wrong path by Rice.

“I think boards have a responsibility to verify their information, to verify that things are happening the way they are being told,” Jaben said. “Clearly did not do that.”

While the medical community overwhelmingly rallied to the ER doctors’ defense, the hospital board and administration summarily dismissed their impassioned pleas. The physician community came to the sinking realization of just how little they were valued by hospital administration, Jaben said.

“The physician community had been systematically cut out of the process over the course of many years,” Jaben said.

Jaben said the new CEO Mike Poore has embraced the medical community.

“If you listen to Mike Poore’s language, he understands quite well that there has to be collaboration and cooperation with the medical staff,” Jaben said.

If Jaben could go back and do anything differently, he would have worked harder to achieve that.

“Your success lies in collaboration. At the time we did as best as we could trying to help that happen, but I think there are yet other ways we could have done a better job,” Jaben said.

Yet the records show that Rice’s administration was trying to get rid of the ER doctors prior to their firing. During the course of the lawsuit, Cannon got copies of emails between the hospital and the corporate physician staffing outfit months before the hospital pulled the trigger on firing Jaben’s group. Other evidence shows Rice had the group in his sights long before that, including a phone call from him to one of the ER doctors pledging to get even after the doctors shared a report outlining areas where the hospital needed improvement.

Rice did not return a message seeking comment prior to press deadline.

Poore said the hospital is glad to have this issue behind them.

“We understand that good relationships with all of our 230 physicians are critical in providing the world-class health care our communities deserve, and we’re happy to close this chapter,” said Poore.

Haywood Regional Medical Center is now part of MedWest, an affiliation with the hospitals in Jackson and Swain counties, and has a partnership with Carolinas Medical System out of Charlotte.

Jaben said the team of 10 ER doctors had loved living and working in Haywood County.

“This has been gut wrenching for many of them,” Jaben said. Only four have remained in Western North Carolina. The rest had to move to find work. Even those who stayed are not on the permanent ER staff of a hospital, but either went into another field of medicine or travel for work.

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