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Doctor sues Providence over lost job

Thu., June 3, 2010, midnight

A Spokane physician has sued a division of Providence Health Care, alleging he was forced out of his job treating women with high-risk pregnancies.

Dr. Reinaldo Acosta said his departure from Providence triggered a non-compete clause in his contract that prevents him from starting his own practice or joining another hospital such as Deaconess Medical Center. He will attempt to have the clause discarded at a court hearing this month.

It’s an unusual case pitting a doctor with prized specialty skills against a health care system that has heavily marketed its children’s hospital at Sacred Heart Medical Center.

Acosta is the only perinatologist in Spokane and among just 1,750 in the country. The physician shortage has become worrisome as the number of high-risk pregnancies grows.

Providence declined to comment on Acosta’s lawsuit against Providence Physician Services Co. Spokeswoman Sharon Fairchild said Providence is attempting to recruit two perinatologists to work within its Maternal Fetal Medicine Program.

The National Center for Health Statistics reports that 12 percent of pregnancies result in pre-term births, a trend possibly triggered by the mothers’ older age or risky behaviors during pregnancy.

Some Spokane doctors practicing obstetrics and gynecology are alarmed at Acosta’s departure and have urged the judge overseeing the Spokane Superior Court case to rule that the non-compete restriction is endangering the future care of women with high-risk pregnancies. The doctors included Pamela Burg, a pediatric cardiologist; and John Gollhofer, Robert Olson and Traci Satterfield, who are OB-GYNs, according to court documents.

His ability to speak Spanish was noted for a region with a significant Hispanic population.

Dr. Robert Olson has even resigned from his OB-GYN post at Sacred Heart – upset that since Acosta’s February departure the hospital has continued to accept high-risk patients and is not meeting his standards of acceptable care, according to court documents.

Fairchild said Sacred Heart has employed perinatologists temporarily to meet patient needs. She said non-compete clauses are commonplace in such professional contracts.

Acosta’s lawyer, Keller Allen, said the public interest weighs heavily in favor of allowing Acosta to return to work.

The physician does not want to leave Spokane, Allen said. Acosta has a young son with a genetic condition requiring care from multiple specialists. Acosta is fearful that moving to another city would disrupt his son’s developmental progress.

Acosta is suing for at least several hundred thousand dollars in lost wages and benefits. His pay this year could have reached at least $680,000, which includes a $560,000 salary, another $70,000 for holding the title of medical director of the perinatology program, and $50,000 in performance incentives.

In court filings, Acosta alleges that in January he received a corrective action notice from Providence that included performance issues and complaints that were months and even years old and had not been brought to his attention.

Acosta said in the court filings the actions by Providence meant that he “was for all intents and purposes contractively terminated from his employment.”

Providence said Acosta resigned and declined to elaborate on the performance issues and complaints.

Acosta’s medical license is in good standing in Washington and California. There are no disciplinary actions on file, according to public record searches.

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