Atrium's cut to anesthesiologists is all about boosting its bottom line

Atrium Health is in a fight with Southeast Anesthesiology Consultants.
Atrium Health is in a fight with Southeast Anesthesiology Consultants.

For Southeast Anesthesiology Consultants (SAC), our public “spat” with Atrium Health is not just about a contract. The outcome will impact every individual in our community and arguably the country.

The physicians of SAC served our community for 37 years. Our families are woven into the fabric of our neighborhoods. Partnering with other health-care professionals, we deliver world class care.

SAC provides care to all, regardless of ability to pay. Our practice donated $1 million to help build the Levine Children’s Hospital. Our physicians and professional Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetist partners established an anesthesia care team model with a proven safety record. Together, we respond to every patient care challenge, no matter how specialized the surgical need.

During contract negotiations, SAC requested no concessions from Atrium. Atrium, however, demanded changes that would “transform healthcare.” An August 2017 proposal by Atrium’s consultant, Dr. Thomas Wherry, outlined radical changes in anesthesia physician staffing.

When details became known, both Atrium and Wherry promised the current anesthesia care team model would remain unchanged. Dr. Brent Matthews, Surgeon-in-Chief for Atrium , has publicly stated: “What was agreed upon was something that was quite honestly right down the middle.” Down the middle of what? The “middle” between a proven anesthesia care team model and what Wherry originally proposed? That sounds different from “the current model will not be changed.“

I hope the community holds Atrium accountable to keep these promises. For SAC physicians, the disagreement has always been about patient safety and who gets to decide what patient safety means.

Across the country, large hospital systems are employing physicians. The mantra has been hospitals can provide all administrative functions, allowing physicians to focus on patient care. Recently, hospital administrators, in “transforming medicine,” are deciding how many patients each physician should see, which staffing models are best and who should provide care.

Protected by Certificate of Need Laws and excluded from Corporate Practice of Medicine regulations, hospital systems establish monopolies that allow them to dictate health care to their communities.

Using monopoly powers, these systems dominate and eliminate physician practices perceived to be uncooperative. SAC physicians are not alone; it is happening to other physicians in our community. Where is your pediatrician? What about physicians of the Mecklenburg Medical Group?

“Transforming healthcare” means transforming physicians right out of healthcare, allowing hospital monopolies to control medicine. This domination is used to expand monopolies and transfer care to other, more easily controlled providers.

Why is Atrium replacing SAC with “trusted partners”? Atrium can control them, seize their resources and implement a practice model that is “right down the middle.” Sounds like a staffing reduction to me!

The country is watching. If successful, physician anesthesiology, as a specialty, may cease to exist and the role of physicians in American health care will be reduced.

SAC physicians are fighting for a proven anesthesia care team model that our patients deserve and have come to expect. Second, we want to illuminate what is happening when well-crafted statements enable drastic changes to your health care. Finally, it is important to challenge the reality that hospital executives are making decisions about your health care based upon what is good for their bottom line. I wonder what determines those million-dollar bonuses enjoyed by these executives.

Confronting Atrium Health may be professional suicide. But for our physicians, it is patient care first and always!

Sauder, M.D., M.B.A., is corporate medical director for Southeast Anesthesiology Consultants.