FLORENCE — The open heart surgery program at Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital was again questioned by attorneys representing Helen Keller Hospital in a contested case hearing on two proposed health-care facilities planned for Florence.
Dennis Nabors, an attorney representing Helen Keller, asked Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital CEO Russell Pigg about the compensation arrangement for services rendered by cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Constantine Athanasuleas. Nabors said the employment of Athanasuleas and Dr. Denis Raleigh, a cardiovascular surgeon at ECM, were part of a “scheme” to bolster ECM and RegionalCare Hospital Partner’s case for a 300-bed replacement hospital.
“Here, on the eve of the trial, they go out and hire a doctor from UAB a month and a half, two months, before this trial to come in and do open hearts, and they hire another to come in and be an employee of the hospital,” Nabors said.
Athanasuleas maintains a faculty position at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and is contracted by ECM through UAB as a cardiothoracic surgeon at ECM. Athanasuleas testified Tuesday he was part of a rotation of surgeons from UAB that filled a gap in service after the previous open heart surgeon left ECM abruptly in 2011.
In December 2012, after many months in the previous arrangement, Athanasuleas was contracted to be a permanent open heart surgeon at ECM.
Raliegh began his practice at ECM in November, Pigg said.
Pigg said Athanasuleas’ compensation was “within fair market value” for a surgeon of his experience.
Athanasuleas said Tuesday he had performed in excess of 10,000 open heart procedures in his career.
Steve Rowe, an attorney for ECM, characterized the discussion about open heart surgery, and particularly the salary of Athanasuleas, as a “sideshow,” distracting from the intent of the contested case hearing.
RegionalCare, the parent company to ECM, has applied for a certificate of need to build a replacement hospital and relocate all of the existing services to the new facility. They have also applied for a certificate of need to build a comprehensive cancer center adjacent to the proposed hospital.
ECM is the only hospital in the Shoals equipped to perform open heart procedures.
Nabors also questioned Pigg’s interaction with Robert Robicheaux, chairman of the school of business at UAB.
Pigg, during a break in the hearing, said he spoke to Robicheaux and asked him about others associated with UAB. Pigg received his master’s of business administration and master’s of science in health administration from the UAB. ECM is involved in a five-year “collaboration agreement” with UAB. Pigg said in particular he asked Robicheaux if he knew Don Lilly, the representative from UAB with whom ECM has worked.
Nabors asked Pigg if he was attempting to intimidate Robicheaux, who is among witnesses expected to testify for Helen Keller.
Pigg said, “absolutely not.”
Pigg testified for two hours Thursday, the fifth day of the hearing. Pigg, who became CEO of ECM in March, said the completion of the two proposed projects would be an invaluable tool in the recruitment of physicians. “Success breeds success,” he said.
“It’s pretty easy to go tell a physician ‘this is your new (operating room). This is your new cath lab. This is your new post-anesthesia care unit or whatever the case may be,’” he said.
“As you get some of the building blocks of the medical staff built, as you get the primary care (doctors) and surgeons in place, you can get more specialists,” he said.
Jennifer Edwards can be reached at 256-740-5754 or jennifer.edwards@TimesDaily.com.
Dr. Steven White, pathologist at ECM, testified to the need of a new hospital and his support of the proposed hospital and cancer center.
Fay Parker, Lauderdale County commissioner, testified to his support of the proposed projects.
Russell Pigg, Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital CEO, testified to the need of the new facilities and the operation of ECM.