Doctors’ spat with Atrium Health spills into rare public view

Atrium Health’s flagship hospital in Dilworth are among those expected to be impacted by Atrium’s termination of contracts with Southeast Anesthesiology Consultants.
Atrium Health’s flagship hospital in Dilworth are among those expected to be impacted by Atrium’s termination of contracts with Southeast Anesthesiology Consultants.

Atrium Health and a group of about 100 anesthesiologists who work at its Charlotte-area hospitals are preparing to part ways, in a contract spat that’s spilling into public view.

Atrium plans to replace Southeast Anesthesiology Consultants with a new provider, a move that ends a roughly 40-year relationship between the two Charlotte-based companies, according to memos obtained by the Observer. The decision means Southeast’s contract will terminate on June 30, after which Scope Anesthesia of North Carolina will be the new provider, memos show.

Contract-renewal talks between hospital systems and doctors are nothing new. What’s unusual here is the public airing of discussions that are normally kept highly private.

As the dispute unfolded, Southeast has taken out full-page ads in the Observer. The ads, such as one this past Sunday, don’t mention contract talks but tout the quality of Southeast’s physicians and that the company has served the community for nearly four decades.

In their memos, both sides accuse each other of misinformation in describing impacts from the contract termination.

Southeast has expressed concerns the change will lead to reduced anesthesiologist staffing at Atrium hospitals and other changes that could impact patient care under the deal with Scope. The termination will affect Southeast doctors who worked at Atrium’s flagship hospital in Dilworth and others, including in Lincolnton, Pineville and Charlotte’s Elizabeth neighborhood, according to Southeast’s memo to local doctors.

In an email last month to Charlotte Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt, one Southeast doctor wrote that Atrium wants to remove the group from its operating rooms, “and we think that this decision puts our community members at risk.”

Defending its decision, Atrium said in a memo to its employees that it has developed an improved model for providing anesthesiology services that reduces patient costs while maintaining safe, high-quality care. During talks for a new contract, Southeast’s proposal did not offer to fully implement that model in all Atrium’s facilities, Atrium said.

Southeast is part of Florida-based Mednax, whose subsidiary American Anesthesiology acquired Southeast in 2010.

In a statement, Atrium said it has been working on plans to increase the affordability of its patients’ co-pays and out-of-pocket expenses for Mednax’s services. Brent Matthews, chair of Atrium’s surgery department, said Atrium has the resources to ensure surgical services will not be interrupted. Care and safety of patients is Atrium’s top priority and at no time during the transition to Scope will patient safety be compromised, Matthews said.

Scope and Mednax did not respond to requests for comment.

The contract termination also appears to mean Southeast’s doctors will no longer be able to work at Atrium facilities. That’s because their employment agreements restrict them from doing so – even if they went to work for Scope or another company, according to memos.

Despite Atrium’s plans to dump Southeast, Josh Miller, an anesthesiologists speaking for Southeast, said contract negotiations are still ongoing. “We remain very hopeful that we’re going to be able to resolve it,” he said.

Atrium’s statement added that Mednax has requested meetings with Atrium. But it’s not clear what the outcome of those might be.

The Atrium move comes as the public nonprofit is looking to slash labor costs across its Charlotte-area hospitals as part of a broad push to become more efficient, the Observer reported last month. That plan has resulted in layoffs, and other employees could see their hours reduced or face restrictions on overtime, Atrium has said.

Deon Roberts: 704-358-5248, @DeonERoberts