Who would sue a doctor for not charging enough?

MIKE ROYKO

January 29, 1993|By MIKE ROYKO

Getting sued for being a really nice guy must be a legal rarity. But that's what appears to have happened to Dr. William Klipfel, 36, a pediatrician.

Klipfel used to work at a clinic in Frankfort, Ill., in the far south suburbs of Chicago.

His clinic was a small satellite of the big Suburban Heights Medical Center in Chicago Heights, which is run by a board of directors made up of doctors.

Last November, Klipfel was fired. But not because he was incompetent, lazy, disliked by his patients, or dropped kids on the floor. To the contrary, his patients thought highly of him.

He got the boot because he wasn't charging enough and didn't order tests he thought unnecessary.

"Where I work," he says, "a lot of families are in trouble. With the economy, many of my families didn't have the money to cover the expensive tests and immunizations.

"So I ordered fewer tests than the other doctors, and if a patient came in for a recheck, for example, I wouldn't charge them anything.

"Look, some of these people had a large deductible or a large co-payment. If they couldn't pay it, they'd wait to come in or sometimes not come in at all. I'm a doctor, you know."

Klipfel says the clinic officials warned him that he wasn't charging enough. "They raised their rates a year ago. The quality didn't go up. They just wanted us to jack up the fees. The average office fee went from $33 to $45. That's a lot of money during a recession, when people are losing their medical coverage."

The main clinic has its own lab and X-ray facilities. "Because I ordered fewer tests, I brought in less money. The more tests, the more money you make. They said what I was doing was wrong. But how much I should charge was not in my contract. I came up with what I thought was reasonable for the patients, and they threw me out on my ear."

But firing him wasn't enough for his former employers.

When he left, he received two months' severance pay. His contract included a non-competition agreement that said he wouldn't practice within 10 miles of the Chicago Heights clinic.

So he opened his own office in Frankfort. He says he thought it was more than 10 miles away because he had seen a highway sign that indicated it was.

However, his new office was about eight miles from the Chicago Heights clinic.

And his former associates were upset because hundreds of his loyal and devoted patients followed him. But for some, finding him wasn't easy.

"When they phoned the clinic, it was as if I had dropped off the face of the Earth. I had left forwarding phone numbers, but the clinic employees were told by the board not to say where I was. So it was implied that I'd abandoned my patients, which is terrible."

But many of the patients had his home phone number or found it through directory assistance and were able to reach him when the clinic wasn't helpful.

(A reporter called the clinic and asked for him. A woman said: "We don't have a forwarding address or number. Try directory assistance. We don't have anything." Fortunately, the reporter wasn't someone with a sick kid.)

You would think that with the hundreds of thousands of people in that part of the Chicago suburbs, there would be enough patients to go around.

But the Suburban Heights Medical Center, which filed the lawsuit, doesn't appear to think so. "Now they're claiming I'm doing irreparable harm to their corporation, but I never made up even 1 percent of their revenue," which he said amounted to about $30 million a year.

"They claim I'm violating my 'restrictive covenant.' But there are about 20 other similar doctors between my practice and the center. Also, I was fired, so the covenant isn't valid.

"You can't fire someone illegally, then deny them the right to make a living. And I also know of several doctors who left the clinic voluntarily and practice in the area. The corporation is mad because my patients came to me. But I didn't advertise. I did not solicit at all. But I'm their doctor.

"The corporation claims it owns these patients, that I should be barred from seeing them. They're trying to take away my ability to make a living, and they want an injunction slapped on the whole community from seeing me."

The lawyers for the clinic didn't return phone calls asking them for their side of the dispute. Which is understandable. When you go into court and complain that a doctor wasn't squeezing enough money out of his patients, what more is there to say: That it takes a lot of blood tests to buy a Mercedes Benz?

A judge is pondering the issues. I wouldn't be so presumptuous as to advise a judge. But I hope he noted that quite a few of Dr. Klipfel's patients came to court to talk about what a fine, dedicated physician he is.

On the other hand, there have been no reports of patients coming to court, waving their checkbooks, and saying: "Hooray for the corporation -- I want to pay more, more!"

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