The intersection of a global pandemic and the for-profit U.S. medical sector came to a head this weekend when a national physicians group called on Washington regulators to investigate the termination of a doctor who’d publicly criticized a Bellingham hospital for inadequate coronavirus protections.
Dr. Ming Lin worked at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center for 17 years until he was removed on Friday by TeamHealth, a national staffing firm under contract to provide the hospital’s emergency department personnel. Lin became a national avatar for frustrated health care professionals during the COVID-19 outbreak by speaking up in the press and on social media with pleas for more medical supplies and stronger standards to protect health care workers combating the virus.
In a statement posted Saturday on Twitter, TeamHealth said Lin technically was not fired and remains employed by the company, but will no longer work at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center. A PeaceHealth St. Joseph spokesman on Friday confirmed Lin’s termination but declined to comment further because Lin was not directly employed by the hospital.
The American Academy of Emergency Medicine, in a position statement issued Saturday, condemned Lin’s removal and challenged the legality of TeamHealth’s business structure. It contends the medical staffing firm, owned by a hedge fund, relies on a business model that violates a state law designed to keep profit motives from influencing doctors’ treatment and advice to patients.
“[TeamHealth’s] hand in this termination is not only inexcusable but likely impermissible,” the statement said. The group called on the Washington state Attorney General’s Office and the Washington Medical Commission to launch inquiries.
A spokeswoman for Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the office received the complaint but declined to say if an investigation has been initiated. The Washington Medical Commission did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
A TeamHealth spokesman declined to answer questions about what motivated the company to sideline Lin, who at least for now is not working. He said it was “categorically false” that the company’s business structure was illegal.
On March 16, Lin posted a letter on Facebook he’d sent to PeaceHealth St. Joseph’s chief medical officer, outlining how the hospital was mismanaging patient COVID-19 testing and exposing health care personnel and patients to unnecessary risks. He decried the hospital’s internal bureaucracy that prevented some doctors from ordering coronavirus tests, including a “ludicrous” requirement that a flu test be completed before providing patients coronavirus screenings. Lin also criticized the hospital’s lack of a triage tent outside the emergency room to screen and test patients, to limit exposure of other patients and staff to potential infection.
“PeaceHealth is so far behind when it comes to protecting patients and the community, but even worse when it comes to protecting the staff,” Lin’s letter said.
Previously, Lin also said his superiors asked him to “retract” or “recant” his statements, but he refused. “Unless I am terminated and not wanted I will continue to show up to work in the Emergency Room to continue to serve,” he said in a Facebook post Thursday.
Concern about coronavirus has flared in Whatcom County with an outbreak at Bellingham’s Shuksan Health Care Center last week. There are at least 52 confirmed cases and four deaths among the nursing facility’s residents and staff, including six new cases confirmed Sunday.
Other health care professionals have raised concerns similar to Lin’s, as providers struggle to get masks, face shields and gloves. News of Lin’s removal became a social-media phenomenon over the weekend, inspiring tweets by CNN’s Jake Tapper and former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden, among others.
Dr. Robert McNamara, a Philadelphia emergency room physician and past president of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine, said the organization has rallied its members in Washington to complain to regulators that TeamHealth’s system of physician employment violates the state’s law prohibiting the corporate practice of medicine, a guardrail intended to prevent profiteering from eroding standards of care.
TeamHealth was acquired by the Blackstone Group, a private equity firm, in 2016 for $6 billion. Since then, the company came under fire for a pattern of suing uninsured and low-income patients who were unable to pay their medical bills, but discontinued the practice after it gained public attention in the news.
TeamHealth’s network of physician owners — doctors who sign contracts with the company to take on an executive management role overseeing the employment of groups of doctors — are under contract at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center.
“They are essentially paper owners,” McNamara said. “Doctors are lending their names to aid and abet corporate practice of medicine, and this is what you get. Hospital administration says Dr. Lin is causing a problem by publicly raising these safety concerns and asks the physician owner to handle him. They therefore bring down the hammer on Dr. Lin and terminate him as a message to anyone else who might speak out.”
Correction: This article previously misidentified the network where Jake Tapper works.