In April, a group of more than a dozen cardiologists at St. Louis Heart and Vascular (SLHV) lost their privileges at SSM Health, an eight-hospital system in St. Louis.
The physicians did not lose their privileges because of a clinical failure. Rather, it was because of SSM’s decision to enter into an exclusive contract with another set of cardiologists.
“The current situation is economically untenable for us,” said Harvey Serota, MD, founder and medical director of SLHV. “This is an existential threat to the practice.”
Because of the exclusive contract, many of SLHV’s patients are now being redirected to SSM-contracted cardiologists. Volume for the group’s new $15 million catheterization lab has plummeted. SLHV is suing SSM to restore its privileges, claiming lack of due process, restraint of trade, interference with its business, and breach of contract.
Losing privileges because a hospital seeks to increase their profits is becoming all too familiar for many independent specialists in fields such as cardiology, orthopedic surgery, and urology, as the hospitals that hosted them become their competitors and forge exclusive contracts with opposing groups.
What can these doctors do if they’re shut out? File a lawsuit, as SLHV has done? Demand a hearing before the medical staff and try to resolve the problem? Or simply give up their privileges and move on?
Unfortunately, none of these approaches offer a quick or certain solution, and each comes with risks.
Generally, courts have upheld hospitals’ use of exclusive contracts, which is also known as economic credentialing, says Barry F. Rosen, a health law attorney at Gordon Feinblatt, in Baltimore.
“Courts have long recognized exclusive contracts, and challenges by excluded doctors usually fail,” he says.
However, Mr. Rosen can cite several examples in which excluded doctors launched legal challenges that prevailed, owing to nuances in the law. The legal field in this area is tangled, and it varies by state.
Can hospitals make exclusive deals?
Hospitals have long used exclusive contracts for hospital-based specialists – anesthesiologists, radiologists, pathologists, emergency physicians, and hospitalists. They say that restricting patients to one group of anesthesiologists or radiologists enhances operational efficiency and that these contracts do not disrupt patients, because patients have no ties to hospital-based physicians. Such contracts are often more profitable for the hospital because of the negotiated rates.
Exclusive contracts in other specialties, however, are less accepted because they involve markedly different strategies and have different effects. In such cases, the hospital is no longer simply enhancing operational efficiency but is competing with physicians on staff, and the arrangement can disrupt the care of patients of the excluded doctors.
In the courts, these concerns might form the basis of an antitrust action or a claim of tortious interference with physicians’ ability to provide care for their patients, but neither claim is easy to win, Mr. Rosen says.
In antitrust cases, “the issue is not whether the excluded doctor was injured but whether the action harmed competition,” Mr. Rosen says. “Will the exclusion lead to higher prices?”
In the case of interference with patient care, “you will always find interference by one entity in the affairs of another,” he says, “but tortious interference applies to situations where something nefarious is going on, such as the other side was out to destroy your business and create a monopoly.”
Hospitals may try to restrict the privileges of physicians who invest in competing facilities such as cath labs and ambulatory surgery centers (ASCs), says Gregory Mertz, managing director of Physician Strategies Group, a consultancy in Virginia Beach.
“However, any revenge that a hospital might take against the doctors who started an ASC would usually not be publicly admitted,” Mr. Mertz says. “Revenge would be exacted in subtle ways.”
In the St. Louis situation, SSM did not cite SLHV’s cath lab as a reason for its exclusive contract. SSM stated in court documents that the decision was based on the recommendations of an expert panel. Furthermore, SSM said the board created the panel in response to a state report that cited the limited experience of some SLHV cardiologists in treating a rare type of heart attack.
Mr. Mertz says the board’s interest in the state’s concern and then its forming the special panel lent a great deal of legitimacy to SSM’s decision to start an exclusive contract. “SSM can show evidence that the board’s decision was based on a clinical matter and not on trying to squeeze out the cardiologists,” he says.
In SLHV’s defense, Dr. Serota says the practice offered to stop taking calls for the type of heart attack that was cited, but the hospital did not respond to its offer. He says SSM should have consulted the hospital’s medical staff to address the state’s concern and to create the exclusive contract, because these decisions involved clinical issues that the medical staff understands better than the board.
The law, however, does not require a hospital board to consult with its medical staff, says Alice G. Gosfield, a health care attorney in Philadelphia. “The board has ultimate legal control of everything in the hospital,” she says. However, the board often delegates certain functions to the medical staff in the hospital bylaws, and depending on the wording of the bylaws, it is still possible that the board violated the bylaws, Ms. Gosfield adds.