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Doctors sue over suspensions

Nine cardiologists have sued the nation's largest hospital chain over their two-year-old suspensions from performing angioplasties at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point.

The doctors allege that Nashville-based HCA Inc., which owns the Hudson hospital, tarnished their reputations by suggesting they had compromised their patients' health.

The real motivation behind the suspensions, the lawsuit says, was financial: The less expensive angioplasties were outpacing the number of bypass surgeries, cutting the hospital's revenue.

The cardiologists, who could still perform other procedures, are asking a judge to force HCA to restore their privileges to do angioplasties and pay them an undisclosed amount in damages.

Eight of the nine cardiologists are represented by Tampa powerhouse Barry Cohen's legal firm.

"The abuse of such distinguished physicians as economic scapegoats is unprecedented," Cohen's firm said in a statement, "and our jury system is designed to protect against such abuse."

The cardiologists represented by Cohen are Sudhir Agarwal, Gopal Chalavarya, Charles Saniour, Adel Eldin, Mahmoud Nimer, Dipak Parekh, Thomas Mathews and Joseph Idicula. The ninth doctor, Rene Kunhardt, is represented by lawyer Anthony T. Leon.

Hospital spokesman Kurt Conover on Thursday declined comment on the lawsuit, which he had not seen.

Angioplasty is a common procedure used to open coronary arteries clogged with plaque.

It is considered an interventional procedure, in which the doctor threads a catheter to the coronary artery, where a tiny balloon is inflated to flatten plaque against the artery wall.

The lawsuits, filed Wednesday in 6th Judicial Circuit Court in Pinellas County, give the following account:

HCA initiated a review of its interventional cardiology program in 2004 for two reasons: a fear of Medicare fraud allegations and economic concerns over a "marked shortfall in bypass surgeries compared to the number of angioplasties."

At the time, more than 2,000 angioplasties a year were being performed at Regional Medical Center's heart institute.

To perform the review, HCA hired a cardiologist with whom it had "long-standing financial ties," the lawsuit said.

That doctor, who was not named in the suit, was not board certified in cardiovascular disease.

He or she was doing business as "CardioQual Associates."

After completing the review, CardioQual did not recommend any action be taken against anyone.

But in December 2004, HCA administrators presented CardioQual's findings to Bayonet trustees - with the added recommendation that they revoke the privileges of the hospital's nine interventional cardiologists.

Nothing was said to the doctors until five days later.

Dr. Agarwal received a phone call from chief operating officer Bob Conroy and later that day got a letter notifying him of the summary suspension and recommendation to revoke his interventional cardiology privileges.

"These actions were a surprise to Dr. Agarwal," the suit says.

"They were taken with knowledge that Dr. Agarwal had patients in the hospital who were already being prepped or scheduled for procedures that Dr. Agarwal suddenly was prohibited from performing."

An HCA representative later told the Times that the suspended cardiologists had in some cases performed unnecessary angioplasties, used the wrong stents to prop open arteries, used incorrect or inadequate medicine to treat coronary artery disease, or kept incomplete medical records.

According to online records, the state medical board never took any disciplinary action against the doctors.

Jodie Tillman covers business and health care in Pasco County. She can be reached at (727) 869-6247 or jtillman@sptimes.com.

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