Well-known Spokane physician Dr. Cheryle Hart has been reprimanded by Washington state health officials, surrendered her medical license in Montana and stopped practicing in Idaho after patient complaints about her alternative hormone therapy seminars, prescriptions and follow-up patient care.
Her licensure problems dovetail with personal money problems and a recent business slowdown that Hart said she plans to remedy by finding a business partner or perhaps joining another medical practice.
Hart, 55, noted that although she gave up her license to practice medicine in Montana she was not accused of harming patients or of malpractice.
She has since refocused her “Hormones by Hart” business, based in an office on North Argonne Road in Spokane Valley. She no longer conducts group meetings and seminars and is not accepting new patients, she said in a recent interview.
Using advertising inviting women to seminars to “Learn the Truth About Restoring Your Natural Levels” of “Skinny Hormones,” “Happy Hormones,” “Youthful Hormones” and “Sexy Hormones,” Hart estimated that she has helped about 8,000 women with weight loss and hormone therapy over the years.
She earned her medical degree from the University of North Dakota, trained at the Mayo Clinic and won a following after she was recruited to a Spokane Valley obstetrics and gynecology practice. She has been a physician for 29 years.
Hart quit delivering babies in 1996. She said her medical interests followed the arc of her own life, from practicing gynecology when she was having children to writing two diet books – “The Insulin Resistance Diet” and “The Feel Good Diet” – and prescribing weight-loss pills as obesity climbed in the public consciousness. She became interested in hormone therapies as she went through menopause.
“I grew very tired of waking up at 3 a.m. to deliver babies,” Hart said. “My life changed and my interests followed those changes.”
Patients complained about seminars
Unapologetic about her actions in Montana, Hart described Montana’s medical board as “not very progressive when it comes to new ideas.”
She ran afoul of Montana’s Board of Medical Examiners in 2005 after several patients complained to officials about her seminars. Hart drew about 100 people to seminars in Montana, collecting some $80,000 in attendance fees, reviewing medical records and prescribing drugs, said LaVelle Potter, a compliance officer for the Montana board. The problem is that Hart was not licensed at the time to practice medicine in Montana.
The board became concerned as Hart advertised the hormone and metabolism workshops and then told patients that their insurance would cover most of the cost.
But insurers frown on such practices, and Potter said Hart knew or should have known the cash payments would not be reimbursed by health insurers.
Hart blamed the episode on a handful of Montana physicians who were jealous of the popularity of her seminars.
“I believe it came down to a turf battle,” she said. “I was really proud to offer something to women that they weren’t getting anywhere else.”
The names of people making complaints are kept secret in Montana, just as they are in Washington. Potter, however, said the people who filed complaints against Hart were not doctors, but women who attended the seminars and grew concerned about Hart’s sales pitch and the services, which included the assistance of a dietitian/nutritionist who was unlicensed in the state and a hypnotherapist.
Other problems listed by Hart’s Montana patients included unreturned e-mails and telephone calls, incorrect prescriptions, wrong diagnoses and lack of follow-up care.
Hart reached an agreement with the Montana board that included a probationary license allowing her to continue holding seminars.
Among the conditions placed on her license was that she keep basic medical records of her patients, including personal and family medical histories, current prescriptions and breast cancer screening results.
“These are just some of the basic kinds of things a patient would expect from a doctor,” Potter said.
When the state later reviewed Hart’s patient medical records to assure compliance with her restricted license, the records were inadequate, triggering another round of inquiries.
Late last year, Hart surrendered her Montana license.
Problems cross state lines
Hart’s problems in Montana spilled over into Idaho and Washington.
Idaho, she said, simply acted on Montana’s decisions after similar complaints arose there. The state placed restrictions on her medical license, including that she must open a clinic in Idaho to treat patients. She said she no longer practices in Idaho.
Three months ago she agreed to an order with the Washington state Department of Health’s Medical Quality Assurance Commission that included a reprimand, commission oversight of her practice for four years, a requirement that she not tell her patients that hormone therapy treatments will be covered by insurance, and the requirement that she maintain medical records for her patients.
If Hart doesn’t meet those requirements, she faces charges of unprofessional conduct and the possible loss of her license in Washington.
But she and her husband, Ronald Grossman, who is chief operating officer of Hart’s medical practice, said they believe they can satisfy Washington’s conditions and that the need for hormone therapies remains strong. They anticipate an uptick in business and interest in alternative therapies when the recession ends.
Default on lab work
A review of local court records shows the problems with Hart’s medical practice have affected her personal finances.
Three weeks ago Spokane Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno upheld a $117,000 default judgment against Hart and her businesses. Her clinic failed to pay Quest Diagnostics Clinical Laboratories Inc. for lab work. The company used a garnishment order to seize about $1,200 Hart had in several personal bank accounts. The sides agreed to work on a settlement to satisfy the remaining debt.
It was the latest financial matter rendered in the courts for Hart and Grossman.
Collection agencies have taken the couple to court for tens of thousands of dollars relating to personal credit cards, personal and home loans, and private lines of credit.
Washington Trust Bank and U.S. Bank sued several years ago for money owed.
Hart and Grossman sold their Spokane Valley home to Hart’s father, Dr. Cecil Ram, for $380,000 in March 2006. They said the money was used to repay most of those debts. They continue to live in the home, renting it from Hart’s father.
Grossman said much of the couple’s financial turmoil stems from a business venture he started in the 1990s called Bullhide Liner Corp.
The spray-on coatings for pickup beds had real promise, Grossman said. At one time he was predicting millions in revenue, according to filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
He sold part of the company to Florida investors before it was taken public with shares sold through the Pink Sheets. But the penny stock firm never took off as Grossman expected, and the investors forced him out, paying him about a penny on the dollar.
“It was a lesson learned,” he said.
Grossman said the couple’s other business is manufacturing a lozenge dietary supplement called CraniYums. Hart bills it on her Web site as a way to boost energy, control appetite and stabilize mood.
“That’s a business that’s really good for us,” Grossman said.