ST. LOUIS COUNTY — A group of local heart doctors, on the edge of being shut out of one of the region’s largest hospital systems, asked a judge on Wednesday to block the move, claiming it would cause the doctors “economic and reputational harm” and force thousands of patients to choose between their doctors and their hospital.
The practice, St. Louis Heart and Vascular, has sued the hospital system, SSM Health, for $50 million in damages. They argue the lockout would “severely obstruct their ability to compete for and continue to treat adult cardiac patients in the St. Louis metropolitan area, especially North St. Louis County,” attorneys said in the suit, filed in St. Louis County Circuit Court.
One of St. Louis Heart and Vascular’s six locations is across the street from SSM Health DePaul Hospital in Bridgeton.
But SSM attorneys told the judge on Wednesday that the system is simply changing to an exclusive cardiology provider, to improve patient care. St. Louis Heart and Vascular doctors, SSM attorneys said, can still see patients at the practice’s surgical center and at other hospitals in the area, like BJC HealthCare Christian Hospital, 13 miles from DePaul.
SSM Health told the Post-Dispatch in a statement Wednesday that it does not comment on pending litigation.
“However, we will point out that SSM Health continually works to improve the care and service offered to our patients,” the statement said. “Exercising exclusivity within our adult cardiology services contributes to that improvement and is well within normal business practices.”
SSM told St. Louis Heart and Vascular in January that it was entering into an exclusive agreement with another provider for adult cardiovascular services, according to court filings. At 11:59 p.m. on Friday, St. Louis Heart and Vascular staff would no longer have privileges at SSM hospitals, the documents said.
Dr. Harvey Serota, who founded the practice in 1993, said he was shocked when he learned.
“You’re taking away their familiar physician,” Serota told the Post-Dispatch.
Serota said he established the location near DePaul Hospital in 2016. He wanted to locate near a hospital in case a patient presented with severe symptoms and needed to be admitted, or in case there were complications during a surgery at his practice.
In court documents, his attorney wrote that St. Louis Heart and Vascular spent over $10 million to lease and build the center, and more than $5 million to buy and rent the medical equipment for it.
If Serota’s privileges at SSM were revoked, a patient could still be admitted to an SSM hospital, he said, but they would be treated by a different doctor there.
Serota built up the practice over time, and today St. Louis Heart and Vascular has 14 physicians and six nurse practitioners. In total, it has about 140 employees across its six locations in the St. Louis area. He and his staff primarily treat issues such as congestive heart failure, heart attacks and blockages.
In a March 19 petition, an attorney for St. Louis Heart and Vascular wrote that the practice has seen patients at SSM hospitals for nearly 30 years. Last year the center’s staff had over 14,000 patient encounters and performed over 770 procedures at SSM facilities. The cardiologists have privileges at other hospitals, but most of their patients live in north St. Louis County, where DePaul Hospital is located, the documents say.
Serota’s attorney also argued that adult cardiac medical services are limited in the north St. Louis County area, and said SSM’s decision would place those patients at risk, and cost them established doctor-patient relationships.
St. Louis Heart and Vascular asked St. Louis County Circuit Court Judge Ellen Ribaudo on Wednesday to enter a temporary restraining order that would stop SSM from ending the cardiologists’ privileges on Friday.
Ribaudo said during the Wednesday hearing that she would issue a decision on the motion this week.