The attorney for a Ventura pediatrician who claims she was fired after complaining about substandard health care opened the case Thursday with charges that patients were not the company's top priority.
"What this is about is convenience of the doctors rather than the care of the patients," said Lawrence Schulner, representing Dr. Claudia Jensen before a Superior Court jury.
But lawyers for the Greater Valley Medical Group countered that financial cutbacks--and Jensen's own performance--led the managed care group to lay her off in early 1996.
The wrongful-termination lawsuit has attracted national attention to the conflict between the quality of health care and the trend toward strict management of medical costs.
The suit is also viewed as a test case for a relatively new state statute that prohibits employers from retaliating against doctors who advocate better patient care.
Jensen, 43, alleges the San Fernando Valley-based group fired her in early 1996 after she criticized the on-call policy that company doctors followed for responding to after-hours patient emergencies.
She says her termination came after writing a Dec. 22 memo to her bosses in which she contended the volume of emergency calls to the on-duty doctor on a rotating panel compromised patient care.
Moreover, during the New Year's holiday weekend that followed, a harried Jensen charged she was on call for 72 hours and responded to 158 phone calls and treated 20 people in Camarillo and Thousand Oaks. Other pediatricians in the group got angry when contacted for help, she claimed.
Soon after, she was fired, a move Jensen argues violates a state statute that protects doctors from being fired for protesting medical practices that are "reasonably likely to be detrimental to patient safety."
Kenneth Drake, the attorney representing the medical group, maintained Jensen was among more than 20 people given pink slips in late 1995 and early 1996 as the company attempted to stem losses that reached $4 million a year. Moreover, he said, there was no threat or risk to patient care caused by the on-call system.
"The evidence will demonstrate the call panel . . . operates effectively," Drake said. "[It] did before this event and continues to do so."
Arguments are expected to last about a week before the jury begins its deliberations.
Jensen is seeking damages of $10,000 a month and future lost wages exceeding $240,000 after being fired in January 1996 from her $128,000-a-year job. Schulner said his client was unable to find work in her profession locally or leave the area for family reasons and suffered "truly staggering" financial losses. Jensen has since opened her own practice, but her net revenue is about $20,000 a year.
Drake said that Jensen had significant problems being a "team player" with other doctors and that she was also the least productive of any physician in the group's Ventura County branches.
He said that contributed to her being laid off at a time when the expected patient increase from the company's aggressive expansion into the county had not materialized. The company has since closed its Oxnard, Camarillo and Ventura offices and combined its two Thousand Oaks locations, Drake said.