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Several Doctors Not Paid For A Month Of Work As LRGHealthcare Finalized Sale To Concord Hospital

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During the height of the pandemic, independent doctors sometimes filled a third of emergency room shifts at Lakes Region General Hospital and Franklin Hospital.

They logged their hours, feet aching from hours of standing and noses rubbed raw from layers of face masks, during a tumultuous period in LRGHealthcare’s history. Not only did they work through a worldwide health crisis, but the healthcare provider’s financial stability was at stake after it filed for bankruptcy in October and later negotiated a $30 million sale to Concord Hospital.

Despite repeated assurances from hospital administrators that these financial changes would not affect their salaries, several of these contracted doctors working on the frontline of the COVID-19 pandemic were not paid for hundreds of hours of work.

After news spread of LRGHealthcare’s unsustainable $128 million debt and bankruptcy filing in October, the founders of a small business that contracts out emergency department doctors called EM-staff, emailed administrators for confirmation that they would be paid as usual. They didn’t want to schedule their doctors for future shifts if their salaries weren’t guaranteed – many doctors work full time for EM-staff and rely on their shifts as their primary source of income.

“You should invoice us as usual and expect to be paid as usual,” wrote Fred Jones in October, then Chief Medical Officer of LRGHealthcare, in an email reviewed by the Concord Monitor. Jones passed away in April.

He told co-founders Matt Warden and Joel Hansford that their doctors had been deemed “essential” and would receive their checks automatically without having to fight in bankruptcy court.

For several months, these promises rang true – EM-staff provided doctors for the emergency rooms and checks from LRGH came in every month for the previous month’s work.

Then in May, Hansford and Warden noticed they still hadn’t yet been paid for hundreds of hours worked in April, nearly $140,000 worth in total. April was the last month the two hospitals were part of LRGH, as Concord Hospital took ownership on May 1.

When the doctors inquired about the missing payments, administrators told them the check would not be sent and EM-staff should prepare to file a claim in bankruptcy court along with the other creditors who were owed millions of dollars. EM-staff is awaiting the results of their bankruptcy claim.

Christopher Desiderio, the counsel for LRGH’s estate, said after the sale to Concord Hospital closed, they were no longer able to make certain payments without court authorization. He said the estate is working on reconciling claims but he could not comment on specific cases.

Warden and Hansford brought their concerns to the CEO of Concord Hospital, Robert Steigmeyer. In a letter to him, they said that if they did not receive the money, they feared doctors would quit their organization, leaving them unable to fill summer shifts.

“While we understand that you are concerned with respect to matters prior to May 1, 2021, we are not responsible for services your company provided in April or at any time prior to May 1,” Steigmeyer wrote back.

Legally, Concord Hospital had no obligation to pay for these hours of labor – since they did not officially take control of the Laconia and Franklin hospitals until the start of May. However, the doctors argue the hospital has a moral obligation to make sure frontline workers they now employ are compensated fairly for their past work.

Concord Hospital officials declined to comment for this story.

David Strang, the treasurer of Central New Hampshire ER Associates another organization that is missing an April payment for a doctor’s work, said when the hospital acquired LRGH, it inherited its problems.

“What really makes it egregious is that Concord Hospital is continuing to use these docs for service, knowing full well that they weren’t paid for their work prior to that,” he said. “You may not have any legal obligation, but you have an ethical obligation.”

Hansford said the decision not to pay doctors without telling them was deceitful.

“We feel this is the worst kind of corporate trickery,” Hansford said.

Several doctors are now reconsidering whether they want to work for Concord Hospital.

Dr. Michelle Diaz, who has still not been paid for two shifts at Franklin Hospital, said when she sets her work schedule, she’ll take shifts at any other hospital in New Hampshire before she takes shifts in the Lakes Region.

“I don’t ever want to work for that hospital again,” she said. “A lot of money changed hands during bankruptcy and our portion of it should have gone to us.”

The payment dispute felt especially personal because, Diaz, like many of her colleagues, joined EM-staff in hopes of helping rural healthcare providers who couldn’t attract accomplished doctors.

“To be treated this way, to have so many of us affected – it’s hard not to be emotional,” she said.

Heidi Blake, an emergency room doctor who worked for LRGH during April, said she felt like administrators took advantage of the doctors’ desire to help patients at underserved hospitals.

“They had a staffing crisis and we showed up and we worked all through this whole thing,” she said. “I’m not about only profit but I work really super hard and I’m working still in a pandemic, still in layers of hot PPE.”

For the time being, EM-Staff doctors will continue to staff Franklin and Laconia hospitals – they signed a year-long contract with Concord Hospital right before the payment dispute started.

However, Warden said they will seriously consider whether they want to renew their contract afterward.

“Do we want to do business on an ongoing way with an organization that practices business in this manner?” he asked.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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