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Doctors sue, say their suspensions are financially motivated

Nine cardiologists have sued the nation's largest hospital chain over their 2-year-old suspensions from performing angioplasties at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point.

The doctors allege that Nashville's 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.

Angioplasty is an interventional procedure used to open coronary arteries clogged with plaque. 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: 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.

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."

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 call from chief operating officer Bob Conroy and got a letter notifying him of the suspension and recommendation to revoke his angioplasty privileges.

An HCA representative later told the Times that the suspended cardiologists had in some cases performed unnecessary angioplasties. 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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