In another example of the potential consequences of rapid healthcare consolidation, patients of a small obstetrics-gynecology group affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center were dismayed to learn that their physicians were no longer present following a sudden ownership takeover by Highmark and West Penn Allegheny Health System, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.
Because of a noncompete clause built into their UPMC contracts, all but one of five doctors belonging to the now-defunct group will practice outside of Allegheny County in the next year, the newspaper reported, emphasizing that patients received little to no notice that they were facing a major change of plans in who would deliver their babies and where.
"No letter, no phone call," said Elizabeth Felter, an affected patient who was 35 weeks pregnant. "To have the rug pulled out from under you like that, [I] was totally caught off guard," she told the newspaper.
In response, Highmark spokesman Aaron Billger said that although physicians themselves were legally prohibited from contacting their former patients, the company set up an informational hotline to help patients find them.
In an ensuing letter to the editor, Rajiv R. Varma, president of the Allegheny County Medical Society, asserted that more needs to be done to protect patient-physician relationships.
"The Allegheny County Medical Society has called for an examination of and legislation to address this issue," he wrote. "At a minimum, patients should be notified that a physician is leaving a practice, the date of his or her leaving and a new location and contact information for a new office location."
Both the article and letter note that the restrictive clauses are not permitted in other fields, such as law practices, in order to allow clients to maintain access to the attorney of their choice. Noncompetes in healthcare are also restricted or illegal in eight states--Alabama, California, Colorado, Delaware, Massachusetts, North Dakota, Tennessee, and Texas--but sometimes deemed unreasonable and therefore unenforceable elsewhere.