Health care battle flares up as anesthesiologists sue Atrium Health over lost contract

Health care battle flares up as anesthesiologists sue Atrium Health over lost contract
(Observer file photo)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Deon Roberts/The Charlotte Observer) - A group of Charlotte anesthesiologists is suing Atrium Health after losing a contract with the hospital system, the latest twist in the battle between the health care providers.

In a civil lawsuit filed late Monday in state court in Mecklenburg County, Southeast Anesthesiology Consultants accuses Atrium and a new vendor of stealing Southeast's trade secrets and using the information to launch the vendor that now has the contract.

The suit comes after Atrium, formerly known as Carolinas HealthCare System, did not renew a contract this year with Southeast, which provides anesthesiologist for most of Atrium's Charlotte-area hospitals. Beginning July 1, Atrium is giving the work to Scope Anesthesia of North Carolina, which was created in January by Dr. Thomas Wherry, a consultant that Charlotte-based Atrium brought on last year.

The suit does not state how much the contract was worth, but Southeast is seeking more than $25,000 in damages.

Southeast says in its lawsuit it gave Wherry large amounts of confidential information after being told Wherry was a consultant tasked with evaluating how anesthesia care was being provided at Atrium facilities.

Southeast says Wherry never identified himself as a competitor and was shocked when it learned it was being replaced by Wherry's company after serving Atrium for nearly 40 years.

In a statement, Atrium said the lawsuit's claims are without merit and that it remains committed to providing the highest quality patient care. Atrium also said it has been negotiating for 18 months with Mednax, the Florida-based, publicly traded company of which Southeast is an affiliate.

"The Mednax CEO refused several contract provisions that would have ensured the safety of our patients and communities we are privileged to serve," Atrium said.

"This language would have protected Atrium Health and the public from Mednax anesthesiologists walking off the job due to a previous dispute and conflict with Mednax, as nearly happened this past July 2017," Atrium said. "Ultimately, Atrium Health wasn't comfortable in partnering with a company that has workforce instability demonstrated by events like this, among other issues, and whose definition of patient safety is so drastically different than ours."

Wherry could not be reached for comment. But he has said doctor staffing won't decrease when his company takes over.

RELATED: In Atrium Health contract fight, doctors go on the offensive

Monday's suit also echoes concerns Southeast published on a website launched this past weekend to bring more public awareness to the issue. Those concerns include claims that Atrium's switch will jeopardize patient safety.

Atrium said Mednax has recently spread false and misleading information online and in other advertisements about Atrium's decision: "Tactics like this are typical to companies trying to protect a sizable book of business," Atrium said.

In its suit, Southeast says Wherry and Atrium last year proposed substantial cuts to the number of anesthesiologists serving patients at Atrium facilities.

Southeast says it attempted for months to accommodate such cuts without compromising patient care and safety. The company said it repeatedly stressed to Atrium dangers and errors in Wherry's recommendations, but Atrium continued to demand Wherry's staffing reductions be adopted at its facilities, the suit says.

Charlotte-based Southeast is part of Mednax subsidiary American Anesthesiology, which acquired Southeast in 2010. Privately owned Scope is also based in Charlotte. Atrium is Charlotte's dominant hospital system.

Southeast, which employs about 90 doctors at Atrium facilities,accuses Atrium in its suit of trying to gain even more market power by ditching the company.

Southeast says Atrium's contract cancellation is meant to punish Southeast for refusing to impose cheaper, substandard care on patients.