SIKESTON - Ferguson Medical Group, an independent multi-specialty medical practice on North Main, filed suit in Scott County's circuit court Wednesday against a former partner physician claiming a violation of the group's partnership agreement.
The suit claims that Dr. Loring R. Helfrich, thoracic/vascular surgery, failed to honor components of his partnership agreement with FMG after resigning July 1 - specifically the agreement that partners who withdraw from the group will not practice within a 40-mile radius of FMG's main location at 1012 North Main Street for a two years. In addition to their main location, Ferguson Medical Group operates an East Prairie facility at 320 West Lincoln.
The partnership does include a buy-out option by which departing partners can continue to practice locally by paying the group an amount equal to their last year's salary.
As Helfrich is practicing in affiliation with Missouri Delta Medical Center, the hospital has been named in the suit as well.
"We had hoped that it wouldn't come to this," said John H. Askew, a senior FMG partner and family practice physician. "Legal action was the last thing we wanted."
Askew said he has never been on the initiating side of a lawsuit before and that Helfrich has been a friend and partner for 25 years. "It's hard personally," he said. "I don't know what other recourse there is. It's upsetting, to say the least."
Helfrich is one of the four doctors who left the medical group earlier this year and became employees of the hospital along with Anthony Poole, obstetrics/gynecology; Kevin Rankin, thoracic/vascular surgery; and Fred Uthoff, internal medicine.
Askew said all action in regards to the partnership agreements are being handled individually. In part because they received less communication from Helfrich than from the other former partners, the group has reached the point with him where they believe there is no other alternative to a lawsuit.
"Our primary commitment is to the medical care of our community," Askew said. "We're doctors and we want to practice medicine. But we're also partners and when partnership agreements are not honored, that becomes a legal issue.
"This action is the end result of Dr. Helfrich's choice to ignore a legally-binding agreement with his partners," he continued. "In our eyes, this is a simple matter of keeping promises and honoring agreements."
Missouri Delta Medical Center CEO Charles Ancell said MDMC regrets that it has become embroiled in the dispute between Helfrich and the group.
If the lawsuit is successful, however, it would prevent one of the area's outstanding surgeons from continuing his practice in this community, according to Ancell.
Ancell said it was when Helfrich announced his intentions to discontinue his practice that the hospital took what they believed to be appropriate action to keep Helfrich here as his loss would have been "particularly devastating to this community."
Ancell stated that MDMC's mission has always been to provide quality medical care for its patients.
"In keeping with that mission, we have done everything within our power to recruit and maintain physicians in our service area," Ancell said. "This has included providing Ferguson Medical Group with significant financial assistance for the recruitment of physicians. It is our hope that this litigation will not jeopardize our long-standing relationship with Ferguson Medical Group or our ability to recruit and retain physicians in this community."
The group reported that all of its staff physicians have privileges at the hospital and will continue to see patients there. "In no way will this suit affect patient care in our offices or at Missouri Delta Medical Center," Askew said. "We will continue our long and productive relationship with the hospital and the exceptional nurses and staff members we work with there. Quality of patient care will remain our primary concern.
"The bottom line is this physician's continued practice in Sikeston violates his partnership agreement with FMG," Askew concluded. "We're doing what we must to protect the interests of our patients and the doctors who remain in partnership with FMG."
Helfrich's staff reported he was occupied with surgeries Friday and was unable to offer a response by press time.