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As Atrium fight with doctor escalates, some employees are getting a big bonus

Atrium Health's flagship hospital in Dilworth. Atrium would be able to provide health care anywhere in North Carolina under a change to state law the Charlotte-based hospital system is pushing for that could greatly expand its footprint.
Atrium Health's flagship hospital in Dilworth. Atrium would be able to provide health care anywhere in North Carolina under a change to state law the Charlotte-based hospital system is pushing for that could greatly expand its footprint. jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

Atrium Health is awarding some employees bonuses of up to 10 percent of their salaries, to help retain staff as it faces a potential exodus of doctors trying to break away from the Charlotte-based hospital system.

The bonuses were announced this week for staff members in Atrium's Mecklenburg Medical Group, a practice from which 92 doctors are seeking to leave and open a practice independent of Atrium. The staff, which includes about 500 employees ranging from nurses to lab workers, are expected to receive the bonuses at the end of the year in exchange for remaining with Atrium until then.

Atrium declined to answer questions about the move.

"Retaining talent is of utmost importance," the system said in a statement. "Details about compensation and personnel matters are confidential."

The step is the latest action Atrium is taking to retain employees, after the doctors sued the Charlotte-based hospital system this month to get out of noncompete agreements so they can operate independently.

Atrium, which bought the practice in 1993, has reiterated that it will grant the doctors' request to leave but must first determine how to address noncompete provisions in their employment agreements.

For Atrium, the largest hospital system in the Charlotte region, it could mean losing the vast majority of doctors at one of its best-known physicians groups. Atrium also has appealed to the doctors in internal emails not to leave.

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Dale Owen, the Mecklenburg Medical doctor leading the push to split away, said such efforts have not convinced any of the doctors to remain with the system.

"They have also had different physicians in Atrium reach out and personally call our physicians to ask them if they understand what they're doing, and why they're doing it ... and what could they do to make this better," said Owen.

It's still not clear how the Mecklenburg Medical Group issue will play out.

On April 4, an attorney for the doctors offered to settle the dispute after Atrium said it would grant the doctors' request to be released from noncompete restrictions. Owen said the doctors are still waiting for a substantive reply from Atrium.

Once the doctors separate, they plan to operate under the name Mecklenburg Multispecialty Group.

The bonuses come as Mecklenburg Medical doctors remain prohibited for a year by employment contracts from discussing Mecklenburg Multispecialty Group job opportunities directly with Mecklenburg Medical staff members, Owen said. Broadly targeted ads for jobs, such as on billboards or in newspapers, during that period would be permitted, he said.

It's not the only lawsuit Atrium is facing from a group of doctors.

Last month, a company that provides anesthesiologists to most of Atrium's Charlotte-area hospitals sued the system over the loss of a contract. In its lawsuit, Charlotte-based 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.

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Atrium has denied the allegations. In a countersuit, Atrium accuses Southeast and the Florida-based company of which Southeast is an affiliate of defamation.

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