A group of physicians who care for patients at hospitals in Tuscaloosa and Northport is suing the DCH Health Care Authority, alleging that new policies at their facilities will effectively put 12 doctors out of business.

At issue is a contentious contract awarded earlier this year that will see hospitalist services provided by Capstone Health Services Foundations instead of Pinnacle Physician Group. Pinnacle has provided hospitalist services at DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa and at the Northport Medical Center since early 2018.

Hospitalists are doctors that provide care for patients without a regular physician, or if their regular physician does not practice at the hospital. Hospitalists work from the time of admission until a patient's discharge.

The new agreement goes into effect this Friday at the Northport hospital and on November 1st at DCH Regional Medical Center.

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The lawsuit, which was filed Wednesday, centers around a memorandum outlining the effects of the new contract which was reportedly penned by Chief Medical Officer Robin Wilson and circulated earlier this month.

The memo reads:

"With two exceptions, if a physician does not see his or her patients in the hospital, the patient must be admitted to or seen by the Capstone Hospitalist Group. Exceptions to this general requirement are: (i) physicians within the same group may see each other's patients in the hospital and (ii) physicians not in the same practice may see each other's patients in the hospital pursuant to a mutual cross coverage arrangement that was in place prior to May 1, 2021. Mutual cross coverage agreements are defined as those coverage agreements where practices care for each other's patients in the hospital on a relatively equal basis."

That's a lot of medical practice jargon. Charles Abney, the owner of the Pinnacle Physician's Group and one of its 12 practicing doctors, summed it up more succinctly in the lawsuit.

"Previously, a primary treating physician could select a physician in another group practice to admit and treat in the hospital the treating physician's patients," Abney wrote. "The Wilson Memorandum now prohibits such an arrangement."

"The new Wilson Memorandum provision is a blatant attempt to force Pinnacle out of business, with absolutely no regard for the quality and continuity of patient care and the critical physician relationships between physicians at Northport and DCH RMC," Abney continued.

Abney argues that a patient's doctors should explicitly determine who cares for them at the hospital, "not a contract formed between two non-interested parties."

"If the [new rules] mandated by DCH [go] into effect, Pinnacle's physicians will be prohibited from treating any admitted patients of physicians who have referral relationships with Pinnacle," Abney wrote. "It will immediately compromise the quality of patient care, unlawfully usurp physicians' medical judgment, prevent physicians from selecting the best care for their patients and wrongfully interfere with long-standing professional and business relationships quintessential to hospital-based patient care."

Abney also wrote that the new policies were drafted by administrators and attorneys, not physicians, and they were unilaterally imposed in violation of DCH's own Bylaws and Rules and Regulations.

In a four-count lawsuit, Abney accuses DCH of tortious interference with a businesses relationship, conspiracy, breach of contract and the deprivation of his right to work.

He asks Circuit Court Brad Almond to immediately issue an injunction to prohibit the enforcement of the Wilson Memorandum, to maintain the status quo and allow Pinnacle physicians to continue serving in the hospitals and to consider awarding compensatory, exemplary and punitive damages.

Abney declined to comment on the lawsuit when contacted by The Tuscaloosa Thread.

Andy North, DCH's Vice President of Marketing and Communication, provided a brief statement on behalf of the hospitals.

"At DCH Health System, our patients are our top priority," North wrote in an email. "DCH’s actions have been in the best interests of our patients and the community we serve."

Stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread for more information on the case as it moves forward.

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