Kaiser Puts Profit Ahead of Patient Care, Says Doctor in Lawsuit
By William Dotinga
5-19-2012 15:05:00

      SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) - A doctor suing Kaiser Foundation Health and its subsidiaries for discrimination also accuses the medical group of putting profits ahead of patient care and forcing her resignation when she spoke out.
      Dr. Karen Pantazis says she worked her way up from anesthesiologist to the chief of the department of pain medicine for Kaiser's South Sacramento Medical Center. In 2004 Kaiser awarded Pantazis the position of clinical lead for pain at the Kaiser Permanente Care Management Institute, according to her 39-page complaint filed in Sacramento Superior Court on May 2.
     Dr. Pantazis claims the harassment started when the hospital appointed Dr. Richard Isaacs physician in chief. "Dr. Isaacs made it clear that he preferred Dr. Bicocca in the role of the chief of the department. Without notification or discussion with Dr. Pantazis, who was the current chief, Dr. Isaacs named Dr. Bicocca to the position of assistant physician in chief," Pantazis states in her complaint. Neither Isaacs nor Bicocca are named as defendants in the suit.
     "Dr. Isaacs was extremely critical of the department of pain medicine and of Dr. Pantazis' leadership, despite the department being considered a role model for the entire region and Dr. Pantazis being one of the most respected pain physicians within Kaiser and having received exemplary reviews since 2001. Dr. Isaacs left Dr. Pantazis with no choice but to step down from her position as chief of the department of pain medicine in or about August 2007. Thereafter, Dr. Isaacs named Dr. Michael Bicocca M.D. chief of the department of pain medicine," Pantazis' suit alleges.
     Shortly after Bicocca became head of the department, he prevented Dr. Pantazis and other the other female physician in the department from attending department meetings by rearranging their schedules without consulting them. He claimed there was no reason for them to attend, even though they had done so in the past according to Pantazis.
     "This effectively isolated Dr. Pantazis and Dr. Tahera from interaction with the department of anesthesia physicians and the operating room since they were away working full time in the pain clinic. Dr. Bicocca controlled the schedule of Dr. Pantazis and Dr. Tahera and they were not scheduled to attend the weekly medical staff meetings, which isolated them from interaction with the medical staff and information presented at the meeting," Pantazis' complaint says.
     Pantazis claims that Bicocca repeatedly and consistently assigned the female positions to the follow-up care for new Kaiser patients and those with pain management devices implanted from sources outside Kaiser. "These were the most complex and time consuming patients and were also worth less in billings than the procedural patients disproportionately assigned to male physicians," Pantakis states in the lawsuit.
     Bicocca rejected Pantazis' requests to assign patients evenly between male and female positions. By 2011, she says that Bicocca was only allowing male doctors to perform device implant procedures-an operation she had taught at two universities and to the younger doctors in the pain department. Pantazis also claims that another physician told her that Bicocca planned to raise the salaries of the male doctors doing device implants.
     "Dr. Bicocca developed the schedule templates and assigned male physicians less complex patients who required less time and were worth more in billings than the complex patients.
     "For example, Dr. Pantazis and other female doctors in the department of pain management were routinely assigned to perform new and returning patient consultations, a time consuming task that did not generate significant billing. In contrast, male doctors in [the department] were routinely assigned to perform interventional procedures, which were not as time consuming but generated significant billing. Dr. Pantazis is informed and believes that raises and bonuses are tied to the amount of billings generated by doctors," Pantazis says in her complaint.
     "Dr. Pantazis is informed and believes that Dr. Bicocca decided or had input on which doctors in the department of pain medicine would receive raises and bonuses and the amounts for raises and bonuses. Dr. Bicocca denied Dr. Pantazis raises and bonuses throughout her employment," the doctor alleges.
     "Dr. Pantazis is informed and believes that Kaiser's focus on age and gender was a factor in Kaiser's age and gender discrimination and harassment against her. Dr. Pantazis is informed and believes, and thereon alleges that she was replaced by two younger male physicians with less experience," she claims in her lawsuit.
      According to Dr. Pantazis, Kaiser managers were aware of the discrimination, harassment and retaliation against her, but did nothing to stop the practices.
     "Accordingly, the managing agents and/or officers are thus culpable for permitting their employees to contribute to and perpetuate the discriminatory, harassing and retaliatory working environment that Dr. Pantazis endured during her employment," her complaint states.
     The retaliation against Dr. Pantazis began when she voiced concerns about declining patient care, according to her complaint. She says that Kaiser reduced appointments for new patients to 45 minutes, and the duration of returning and procedure patient appointments from 40 to 30 minutes.
      "The amount of time allowed by Kaiser for Dr. Pantazis and other doctors to see and treat patients was insufficient to provide adequate medical care in many instances. This practice unnecessarily impacted patient care negatively," Pantazis alleges.
     Additionally, "inadequately trained medical assistants and nurses were assigned to the pain clinic to assist with patients. This practice unnecessarily impacted patient care negatively and put the lives of patients at risk by having inadequately trained and inexperienced support staff assigned to the pain clinic to assist with complex interventional pain procedures," the doctor says in her complaint.
     Starting in the fall of 2010 and continuing through Jan. 2011, Dr. Pantazis says that she made numerous complaints to Kaiser and her superiors at the medical center regarding the practice of allowing and even encouraging program assistants-Kaiser's term for their receptionists according to Pantazis-and medical assistants to offer sedation to all patients and give the sedation