Two separate lawsuits against Auburn Community Hospital from former doctors allege hospital administration retaliated against them for their attempts to blow the whistle on another doctor's dangerous conduct.
The lawsuits, one filed in federal court in December and another filed Wednesday in state Supreme Court in Cayuga County, claim similar patterns of targeted discrimination or retaliation in response to the plaintiffs' warnings regarding the conduct of another doctor. Those warnings included allegations that one patient died after being improperly treated, and in other cases, doctors had to intervene in what were described as "near misses."
Dr. Gregory Serfer, the plaintiff in the federal lawsuit and former director of the hospitalist program at ACH, confirmed to The Citizen that the problematic doctor, identified as Dr. Jeremy Barnett, is the same physician referred to in a state and federal report that said the hospital improperly responded to complaints regarding a physician referred to as Staff A. The hospital has refused to answer questions about that 2018 report, which was a statement of deficiencies from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The findings could have put federal funding the hospital receives in jeopardy, but the hospital’s correction plan was accepted in November.
The lawsuits from both Serfer and Dr. Karen Odrzywolski, the former director of ACH's stroke program and the plaintiff in the state lawsuit, were the culmination of their efforts to sound the alarm about not just Barnett but what they described as a problematic culture at the hospital in general, Serfer said.
"The general culture that I think anyone would share with you is one of fear," Serfer said in an interview Wednesday. "Keep quiet or else."
Through a spokesperson, the hospital declined to comment Wednesday beyond a brief statement, citing the legal nature of topic.
"We are aware of the legal actions that have been recently filed. Unfortunately, we cannot comment on these matters because of the ongoing legal nature of these activities. Auburn Community Hospital leadership takes these matters very seriously and has always complied with all state and federal regulations," the statement said.
Serfer said that after numerous internal complaints went ignored or unaddressed and regulatory agencies did not act expediently, a “coalition” of staff including himself and Odrzywolski decided to file lawsuits to try to force a change before more patients are put at risk, he said.
"This is about not only the protection of the community, the protection of employees at the hospital and the common good," Serfer said. "There have been just a parade of almost increasingly less competent and more problematic physicians being brought through there and Dr. Barnett was just the culmination of it."
The goal behind the lawsuits, Serfer said, is “excising the tumors that keep Auburn Community Hospital from being what it should be.” Serfer declined to say specifically what he was referring to, but he said most staff working at the hospital are trying to do the right thing.
According to Serfer's lawsuit, he was wrongly replaced by Barnett in the intensive care unit after Serfer returned from Puerto Rico in 2017 to serve with the National Disaster Medical System. Barnett had been hired as a temporary replacement but was hired into a permanent post shortly after he arrived in Auburn.
The lawsuit says Barnett "demonstrated a negligent, if not intentionally reckless, practice of medicine that endangered the lives of patients on a regular basis" by ignoring protocol and experts and electing for unnecessary, dangerous and unethical medical procedures.
In one incident, the lawsuit claims, Barnett failed to follow the surgery team's recommendations to transfer a patient to a different hospital, which "ultimately removed any chance the patient had of recovering, and the patient later died after his care.”
The lawsuit alleges that, despite Serfer bringing such behavior to the attention of ACH CEO and President Scott Berlucchi and Chief Medical Officer John Riccio, Barnett's behavior went unaddressed.
The lawsuit also alleges that administrative leaders praised Barnett for increasing ICU admissions, but the lawsuit claims the increase was due to patients who did not require ICU admission being sent there anyway.
The Barnett case was not the first instance of Serfer encountering resisting for raising concerns about patient care. Prior to Barnett's arrival, the lawsuit says, Serfer was forced in 2015 to agree to a change in his employment agreement that said he would be fined $500 every time he voiced concerns or criticisms about the hospitalist program to anyone but the head and administrative director of the program.
After being effectively ignored in his efforts to get management to take action in the Barnett case, according to the lawsuit, Berlucchi confronted Serfer with a termination and stated Riccio wanted Serfer fired. “Facing the threat of termination and knowing that he was being targeted," Serfer resigned, the lawsuit says.
Odrzywolski's lawsuit contains many similar complaints, and also alleges she faced gender-based discrimination.
For example, the lawsuit claims that Odrzywolski, a neurologist, was only paid for the hours she physically worked while male neurologists who only worked as few as two to three hours a day were paid for full eight-hour shifts. Similarly, male neurologists were allowed to take calls from Manlius or Syracuse, outside the radius allowed in the hospital's bylaws, while she was not afforded the same option, limiting her income.
Odrzywolski, the only female medical director at the hospital at the time, was only invited to attend two weekly director meetings, and was unfairly criticized and defamed when she did, the lawsuit says.
During a Feb. 7, 2018, meeting, Odrzywolski voiced concerns about a proposal from Barnett and Emergency Department Director Dr. Patsy Iannolo regarding a procedure for stroke patients. After leaving the meeting early to meet with patients, Odrzywolski was later told Iannolo and Barnett made "false and defamatory" comments about her behavior and competency.
In a series of emails between Odrzywolski and Berlucchi attached with the lawsuit, Berlucchi stood up for Odrzywolski against the comments, but then focused on finding out who told her about the comments, rather than addressing them.
"Now tell me only one thing, was it serfer [sic] who painted this picture? Otherwise I am not interested in the source," an email from Berlucchi reads.
Odrzywolski’s lawsuit claims that Berlucchi and Iannolo then engaged in a defamation campaign to try to have her removed as the hospital’s stroke director and replaced by Barnett. She said she eventually decided to resign because of the stress of the situation, giving the hospital a 60-day notice. Berlucchi then asked her to stay beyond 60 days until a replacement doctor could start, but when Odrzywolski informed Berlucchi of new complaints medical staffers had made about Barnett, she was then told not to stay beyond the 60 days.
Odrzywolski could not be reached Wednesday for comment. Barnett also could not be reached for comment. According to Serfer, Barnett has not been employed at ACH since some time in December.