Former medical director sues Cape Cod Hospital for alleged defamation, whistleblower retaliation

Former Cape Cod Hospital cardiovascular medical director Richard Zelman, MD, is suing the Barnstable, Mass.-based hospital and CEO Michael Lauf for alleged whistleblower retaliation and defamation, The Boston Globe reported Dec. 8.

Mr. Lauf allegedly prioritized profit over patients when he tried to limit the use of a medical device to patients whose insurance had higher reimbursement rates, the report said. Dr. Zelman also alleged Mr. Lauf and others retaliated against him for reporting what he considered "grievously dangerous care" by the hospital's cardiac surgeons.

Dr. Zelman, an interventional cardiologist, helped found the Cape Cod Hospital's Heart and Vascular Institute and became its medical director in 2018, the report said. He was the health system's highest earner in 2020, out-earning the CEO with a $1.78 million compensation package. He has practiced at the hospital since 1990.

He alleges in the lawsuit that in 2019, Mr. Lauf limited the use of a device that filters out stroke-causing debris during certain procedures to patients whose insurance had higher reimbursement rates, the report said. The hospital eventually reversed that decision, allowing the device to be used in all high-risk patients.

Hospital executives allegedly retaliated against Dr. Zelman by investigating his performance and stripping him of oversight duties, the report said.

He sounded the alarm again in 2021, raising concerns to Mr. Lauf and other officials about what he believed were several preventable patient deaths after surgeries performed by the hospital's two cardiac surgeons, the report said. Dr. Zelman alleged all the patients in question who died were at low risk for complications.

Both surgeons continued to practice at Cape Cod Hospital, but one was eventually removed after bringing an automatic rifle to work, the report said. 

Boston-based Brigham and Women's Hospital, which Cape Cod Hospital was affiliated with at the time, self-reported to CMS potential problems with how its Cape Cod heart surgeons had documented valve replacements, the report said. Brigham and Women's eventually issued a refund to CMS for all revenue from the procedures performed at Cape Cod Hospital over the previous six years.

Dr. Zelman claims he was given an offer to keep his job, conditional upon him issuing a written statement endorsing the quality and safety of the hospital's cardiac-related programs, the report said. He refused and was fired from the hospital in September, according to the lawsuit.

Dr. Zelman is seeking an undisclosed amount in damages through the lawsuit, the report said. The hospital has denied his claims.

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