Florida health system accused of forging letter to defame competitor's board members

A complaint filed Jan. 31 accuses Rockledge, Fla.-based Health First, one of its executives and an advertising firm of defaming board members of Parrish Medical Center in Titusville, Fla.

The complaint alleges Health First used the letterhead of a physician affiliated with Parrish Medical Center to falsely accuse two Parrish board members and a former Brevard County (Fla.) politician of fraud and abuse.

False statements about the Parrish-affiliated officials were spread in an August email blast to public officials and the media that purported to come from OMNI Healthcare President Craig Deligdish, MD, and a company that investigates medical fraud. However, the complaint filed last week alleges Health First Senior Vice President of Strategy and CEO of Health First Health Plans Matthew Gerrell and advertising firm 321 CEO Joe Boutin helped create the document, according to Florida Today.

Health First and Mr. Gerrell would not comment on the pending litigation, and their lawyers did not respond to Florida Today's request for comment. Mr. Boutin's lawyer denied that 321 conspired to defame the Parrish board members or the former politician.

The complaint includes speculation as to why Health First allegedly sent the email blast.

"The day before the defamatory letter and blast emails were went, Parrish [Medical Center] had prevailed in a high-profile lawsuit involving its arch nemesis, Health First, in the latest installment of what the United States District Court Judge described as a 'long running, heavily litigated, 'scorched earth' turf war for Brevard County's healthcare business,'" states the complaint.

On Aug. 22, U.S. District Court Judge Roy Dalton granted Parrish Medical Center's request for summary judgment in a legal dispute dating back to 2017. In the lawsuit, seven oncologists claimed Parrish did not renew their practice privileges because they failed to share patient data with the hospital. They argued the decision did not follow contract bylaws. In his decision granting summary judgment, the judge said the decision was in accordance with the bylaws. He also pointed to Health First's influence in the case.

The physicians were associated with both Parrish Medical Center and Health First, and Health First would not share patient data it owned with Parrish. "The plaintiff physicians here ... have been employed as foot soldiers in the intractable hostilities," the judge wrote in the decision.

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