Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center will terminate its contract with a key Santa Fe cancer treatment group in May, with the group claiming thousands of patients could be left in limbo.
New Mexico Cancer Care Associates said a workable interim plan hasn’t been developed, but Christus St. Vincent gave assurances it has “planned for this transition.”
Cancer Care Associates officials said the issues between the two entities include the hospital’s desire to employ the clinic’s currently independent oncologists and differing views on staffing concerns at the clinic.
Two New Mexico Cancer Care Associates physicians said in an interview their primary concern is how the clinic’s patients will be served during the transition. They said their clinic receives referrals from doctors inside and outside the hospital.
“It will really put patients at risk with catastrophic consequences,” said Dr. Kat Chan, an oncologist and the president of practice at the clinic.
Chan said the clinic wants to have good-faith discussions or mediation with the hospital to develop a realistic transition plan.
Christus St. Vincent early this year announced plans to build a new cancer facility by 2024 on its campus off St. Michael’s Drive. The facility will enable the hospital to serve more patients and retain them in one location, among other things.
Dr. Scott Herbert, an oncologist with Cancer Care Associates said Christus St. Vincent has had a contract with the group since 2012, adding the clinic also sees cancer patients at Los Alamos Medical Center.
The clinic’s doctors said their institution recently declined Christus St. Vincent’s offer to absorb its oncologists into the hospital as employees, adding the hospital said it would terminate the group’s contract on May 27. Chan and Herbert said the hospital has recruited one of the group’s oncologists and a nurse practitioner.
In a statement, Christus St. Vincent said Cancer Care Associates “let us know months ago of their decision to move away from their exclusive relationship with the hospital, and we have honored their decision.”
“Therefore, we have initiated steps to engage in a patient-focused transition plan; however, they [Cancer Care Associates leaders] have not been open to those discussions,” the statement continued. “A cancer diagnosis can be devastating news for a patient and their family. Christus St. Vincent remains vigilant in our care and would never jeopardize our patients or their families.”
Chan, Herbert and a clinic news release said Christus also has expressed concern about staffing levels at Cancer Care Associates.
The representatives of the clinic, 490 W. Zia Road, said they hope to participate in mediation with Christus St. Vincent, but if nothing can be worked out, Chan said the clinic expects to go to court to stop early termination of the contract. She said the contract was expected to run through late December.
A March 28 letter from Christus St. Vincent to a clinic attorney in Boston, however, said the hospital “believes that mediation is the ideal forum to address these matters, including developing a cooperative transition plan that protects patient care and allows both NMCCA and the Hospital to pursue their respective interests going forward.”
That letter, provided by the clinic, said the clinic breached its contract and couldn’t solve issues of concern. It said clinic representatives seemed “focused on working toward a separate future under a successor entity, Nexus Health.”
Herbert said the clinic has “been preparing for the future all along. We just don’t want to put anybody at risk in the interim while we prepare for the future.”
Christus St. Vincent, which didn’t make officials available for an interview, said in a statement: “Part of this plan does involve some transitional steps, such as a change in our relationship with NMCCA. However, we have planned for this transition and remain committed to providing the highest level of care that our patients have come to expect and deserve.”
Herbert said the partnership has worked well for more than a decade and “staffing has never, ever been raised as a concern with our practice” until recently.
Chan said the clinic has five oncologists and two nurse practitioners in Santa Fe. A part-time physician covers Los Alamos for the clinic, Herbert said.
The independent group said if it loses its contract with the hospital, it cannot continue to see patients until it is able to negotiate new agreements with insurers, which could take several months.
She and Herbert said the clinic is still able to accommodate all of its patients promptly. The clinic over the years has had five to seven oncologists, Chan said. Staffing is sufficient, wait times remain the same, treatments are on schedule and the clinic also has hired another oncologist who will start in the summer, they said.
“The patients shouldn’t be put in the middle of this,” Chan said, adding she wants Christus St. Vincent to “come to reason” and work out a good plan.
Santa Fe New Mexican reporter Teya Vitu contributed to this story.