By Roger Gitlin, Del Norte County Supervisor District 1
“Who’s going to protect the people of Del Norte County?”
Those words of Kevin Caldwell, M.D., reverberate loudly. It was Dr. Caldwell who first dared to stand up to the multi-billion dollar goliath Sutter Health by opposing Sutter’s decision to move hospital ownership out of Del Norte County to the Bay Area and lower the 49-bed Acute Care hospital to a 25 bed Critical Access facility.
Dr. Caldwell was the first local physician to see Sutter’s malfeasance. As hospital chief of staff, he identified Sutter’s repeated implementation of patient care policies without physician input. Sutter Health was telling doctors how to practice medicine, in violation of California law. With great effort, Dr. Caldwell was able to unwind Sutter’s illegal policies. Later, after Sutter Health executives advised the local hospital Board to dissolve itself and transfer hospital ownership to the Bay Area, Dr. Caldwell asked the hospital board chair for a guarantee Sutter would not close the obstetrics service. Dr. Caldwell could not get that guarantee. He stood alone in defense of our community.
Dr. Caldwell joins medical colleagues Mark Davis, M.D., Manfred Ritter, M.D., and Gregory Duncan, M.D., all of whom have experienced the pain of a revengeful, insatiable bully, Sutter Health Corporation. Sutter Health, parent of Sutter Coast Hospital, does not play nicely in the Del Norte sandbox.
Do you recall hospital CEO Mitch Hanna’s announcement this year that Sutter had suspended its application for Critical Access designation? Not true. According to a letter sent to me by Dana Forney, regional manager of the California Department of Public Health, as of April 3, no changes to Sutter Coast’s Critical Access application have been reported to CDPH. Was Mr. Hanna’s big announcement just more public relations designed to quiet the growing concern with Sutter’s decisions?
The recently-exited Manfred Ritter, M.D., FACS, a superb surgeon who was recruited to Sutter in 2010, saw the writing on the wall and has taken his skills to Seaside, Ore. His recruitment was initiated and endorsed by Sutter Pacific Medical Foundation. After Dr. Ritter opposed Sutter Health corporate policy, his contract came up for renewal – with Sutter slashing his income guarantee by 50 percent. Sutter sent a clear message to a medical professional who had zero complaints levied against him and a rating of “superior” from over 98 percent of his patients.
Likewise, Dr. Davis suddenly finds his 22-year urology practice in Del Norte County in peril. Sutter Health has recently hired another urologist, whose income will be subsidized with Sutter’s tax-exempt war chest, to compete with Dr. Davis. One might say, “What’s the matter with a little friendly competition? That’s good for the economy.” To the contrary – the now-famous Camden Report, commissioned by Sutter, identified numerous health care needs, including cardiology, nephrology, oncology and mental health. Likewise, Sutter’s Community Health Needs Assessment identified many unmet health care needs in our county. But neither study identified a need for a second urologist. Other than driving Dr. Davis out of town on a rail, what could be the reason Sutter Health has hired another urologist?
Dr. Greg Duncan’s experience follows the pattern. After he opposed Sutter’s plans to downgrade the hospital, Dr. Duncan found himself the subject of multiple investigations by Sutter Health and Sutter Coast Hospital. Dr. Duncan was forced to spend thousands of dollars and countless hours to defend himself from Sutter’s baseless allegations. In the end, it was Sutter who was cited for misbehavior by the Joint Commission (which evaluates hospitals nationwide) and the California Department of Public Health (which regulates hospitals in California).
When Sutter’s Exclusive Provider Organization was rolled out this past winter, none of the local independent doctors were invited into the network. CEO Hanna said they are part of the Sutter network, yet to date, Sutter has failed to send local doctors the appropriate paperwork to join, and those doctors are not part of the Sutter network. Drs. Caldwell, Davis, Ritter and Duncan each share a public opposition to Sutter Health’s quest to lower hospital status and move all decision-making out of Del Norte County.
I would think a nonprofit “charity” would be obligated to maintain the very highest level of medical services. Sutter does not play nicely in the sandbox. It should come as no surprise that local doctors who have worked in our community for decades now find themselves with a fistful of sand granules tossed in their eyes.