Emergency room group sues HRMC

By Becky Johnson • Staff Writer

A long-time group of emergency room doctors in Haywood County filed a lawsuit against Haywood Regional Medical Center this week.

Haywood Emergency Physicians were ousted by a unanimous vote of the hospital board in late December and replaced by a corporate physician staffing company. The old doctors had a contract with the hospital to run the emergency room through May 2008.

The hospital’s decision to oust HEP was primarily attributed to a long-running power struggle between hospital CEO David Rice and some of the ER doctors rather than the quality of care or service provided by the ER doctors. Haywood Emergency Physicians is suing the hospital for a breach of contract, unfair and deceptive trade practices and conspiracy in restraint of trade.

“By its actions, the hospital has damaged Haywood Emergency Physicians, the medical staff, the employees, and worst of all, this community. Because of this unconscionable breach of contract, Haywood Regional Medical Center left us with no choice but to file this suit,� said Dr. Mark Jaben, one of the ER doctors.

Haywood Regional Medical Center had no comments on the lawsuit as of press time.

There is no indication how quickly the lawsuit could be resolved. Civil cases can drag on for months or years as both parties file motions and counter motions, or the hospital could attempt to settle the case quickly out-of-court. Attorney Bill Cannon with Brown, Ward and Haynes in Waynesville is representing the ER doctors.

The lawsuit does not ask for a specific amount in damages. The amount will be determined by both parties if there’s an out-of-court settlement or by a jury if it goes to trial.

The suit by Haywood Emergency Physicians represents eight doctors. At a minimum, damages sought by the group would likely cover the salary of those eight doctors for the 18 months that remained on their contract, as well as the cost of malpractice insurance. The doctors must continue to carry malpractice insurance even though they are not actively working, since the statute of limitations on malpractice claims in North Carolina can be up to four years.

In addition, Haywood Emergency Physicians is suing its replacements, the corporate physician staffing firm Phoenix Physicians. Phoenix is being sued for interference with contracts, unfair and deceptive trade practices and conspiracy in restraint of trade.

The lawsuit claims that Phoenix conspired with Haywood Regional “by promising to provide emergency department services at a time when it knew such services were to be provided by Haywood Emergency Physicians.� Phoenix also attempted to solicit physicians under contract with Haywood Emergency Physicians to defect and join Phoenix.

The medical community and general public appealed to the hospital board not to get rid of Haywood Emergency Physicians. Other physicians told the hospital board that the decision to oust the ER doctors would have negative impacts on the entire medical community. Some patients have already pledged to take their health care dollars elsewhere, and recruitment of new physicians will become more challenging if the hospital administration is viewed as hostile toward doctors, physicians said.

There has been a net loss of physicians in Haywood County in recent years and recruitment efforts for key fields have been unsuccessful. After a blow-up between the hospital administration and orthopedists two years ago — temporarily leaving the county with no general orthopedists — the hospital has managed to recruit only two orthopedists, not even half the number a county of Haywood’s size needs to adequately serve its population.

“Hospitals are public institutions,� Jaben said. “They really have a moral obligation and an ethical responsibility to set the example for the community on how to behave. The hospital, and particularly its administration, should be accountable for what they say and what they do.�
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