California health system sues neurosurgeons over alleged walkout

Alan Condon -  

Fresno, Calif.-based Community Health System is suing a physician group claiming it withheld "lifesaving" neurosurgical trauma care "in an attempt to secure leverage over" Fresno Community Hospital and Medical Center, according to a lawsuit filed Sept. 23.

Community Regional Medical Staff Medical Group, an affiliate of Fresno-based Santé Health System, and Scott Wells, CEO and executive director of Santé, are named as defendants in the case, which accuses them of breach of contract and intentional interference with contract, among other charges, according to The San Joaquin Valley Sun.

Mr. Wells is responsible for communicating with Community Medical Centers on behalf of the staff medical group, particularly for on-call services provided at the hospital trauma center, according to court documents. It is alleged that on Sept. 1, 2020, with less than "32 hours’ notice" — when a 90-day written notice was said to be required — neurosurgeons in the staff medical group announced that they would stop providing call coverage at the hospital.

The announcement that neurosurgeons would stop taking call services was during a period when the hospital was addressing a "significant uptick in COVID-19 cases" and less than 24 before the Creek Fire, a wildfire that began on Sept. 4, 2020. The alleged walkout was during a renegotiation of a contract between Community Medical Centers and the staff medical group.

The lawsuit accuses the defendants of attempting to strip Community Medical Centers of its level 1 trauma center status. The lawsuit alleges the short notice hurt the hospital by transferring critical patients out of Fresno and forced it to quickly find replacement neurosurgeons, the health system said in the lawsuit.

After the coordinated withdrawal, Central California Emergency Medical Services set a Sept. 11, 2020, deadline to maintain the hospital's level 1 trauma center status. Replacement physicians stepped in, which allowed the hospital to retain its status, and on Sept. 15 it secured a deal with neurosurgeons who were affiliated with the prior contract before the alleged walkout, according to The Business Journal.

Community Medical Centers is seeking damages for an alleged breach of contract, breach of good faith and interference with contractual relations. The lawsuit requests a jury trial, seeking both compensatory and punitive damages. 

Santé Health System did not reply to Becker's request for comment at the time of publication.

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