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Hearing Delayed in Doctors' Lawsuit

Attorneys stake their positions even as a judge postpones action in the physicians' case against Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura.

May 02, 2003|Daryl Kelley | Times Staff Writer

A Superior Court judge Thursday postponed a hearing on a physicians' lawsuit against Ventura's Community Memorial Hospital, but attorneys argued the issues anyway in new court documents and verbal broadsides.

Formally responding to medical staff claims that the hospital has jeopardized patients' health by violating physician rights, lawyers for the hospital maintained that medical center trustees -- not doctors -- hold the ultimate responsibility for patient care, and that care remains excellent.

Hospital lawyers also challenged the medical staff's basic premise that physicians have authority to function as a self-governing branch of the hospital, independent of hospital administrators and trustees.

"The law is crystal clear," wrote attorney Peter Goldenring, who represents Community Memorial. "The buck stops on the desk of the Board of Trustees.... [Doctors] want power with no responsibility. They want authority without legal liability. Their position is completely unsupportable legally and illogical."

Goldenring also implied that some doctors suing Community Memorial have done it so they won't have to abide by a new conflict-of-interest policy and can continue to compete against the hospital with their own surgical centers while taking advantage of staff privileges.

"Some doctors are not good physicians and hurt people. Some doctors can be influenced by personal economic gain," Goldenring wrote, opposing a request by doctors for a court order to block hospital interference in medical staff affairs.

Judge Henry J. Walsh delayed hearing the request until Monday, saying he needs time to digest hundreds of pages of documents filed by Community Memorial attorneys late Wednesday.

But Charles Bond, an Oakland lawyer who represents the medical staff, said Goldenring's "efforts to personalize, to marginalize and to trivialize this issue are unfortunate and misleading."

Bond said the economic issues are "red herrings" raised only to disqualify physician leaders from holding the offices to which their colleagues elected them.

"The hospital is using the allegation of economic conflict as a pretext to deny giving the medical staff the right of self-government," Bond said.

Community Memorial has been embroiled in an internal fight for about a year, as the 242-bed hospital has tightened controls over its medical staff and physicians have bristled at an erosion of their rights. After attempts at mediation, a group of physicians led by a majority of the medical staff executive committee filed suit last week.

The doctors claim that administrators tried to rig a staff election, adopted an 18-page code of conduct to stifle dissent, implemented a conflict-of-interest policy to disqualify select physicians from leadership positions and illegally allowed physicians to practice at the hospital without the staff's review.

Goldenring said the dispute is purely financial and that the courts will uphold the right of the hospital's board of trustees to be the ultimate authority at the medical center. The medical staff functions as an advisory group only, he said.

Community Memorial's Lowell Brown, a Los Angeles lawyer specializing in medical care issues, said the Ventura case is significant because it could settle a dispute between hospitals and staff physicians not yet considered by the California Supreme Court.

The California Medical Assn. is supporting the Ventura doctors financially. The hospital industry has voiced support for Community Memorial.

"This is one of the biggest issues yet to be decided in California," Brown said. "But if you look at all of the case law, I think it's clear how the court should come down.... The board of trustees is supreme. The medical staff is subject to the board in every way."

Brown said the physicians will be "hard-pressed to find any legal commentary to agree with them."

Bond, however, said the independence of a hospital medical staff is well established in law, industry regulation and practice.

"It's the agenda of the American Hospital Assn.," he said, "to change the relationship between the hospital and the medical staff."

Virtually every medical association in the country, including the American Medical Assn., holds the same view as the Ventura doctors, he said.

In a related filing, Goldenring claimed that Bond had violated the law by revealing the name and ailments of a patient in evidence presented earlier this week. He asked that the matter be referred to state and federal authorities for investigation.

Bond acknowledged that confidential information was released through a clerical error, but said it was removed from the court file almost immediately once he discovered the problem.

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