One doctor at Mission Cancer Center’s Medical Oncology department has left, and another one has announced plans to leave soon — potentially leaving only one physician in the department and forcing many cancer patients to seek treatment elsewhere, Asheville Watchdog has learned.
Mission spokeswoman Nancy Lindell confirmed that “one physician has left and another is leaving from a single medical practice.” Neither she nor other HCA-Mission executives would say how many cancer center doctors remain on staff, or if there are plans to replace the doctors who are departing.
Lindell sent an email statement May 4 denying what she called “false rumors” related to concerns among some patients that the departure of doctors from Mission Medical Oncology, on top of the closing of the cancer center’s pharmacy in March, could lead to HCA shutting down the department completely.
“There are no plans to close the Mission Medical Oncology practice,” the statement said. “It is one piece of Mission’s comprehensive cancer program, which remains strong and committed to caring for patients throughout Western North Carolina.”
The statement noted that Mission “work[s] very closely with other programs in the area such as Messino Cancer Center and GenesisCare Surgery, who continue to operate every day at Mission Hospital.”
Physician departures from the Mission Health System accelerated following the 2019 takeover by HCA Healthcare of Nashville, prompting Asheville Mayor Esther Manheimer to describe HCA-Mission in 2020 as “hemorrhaging doctors.” HCA and Mission have not responded to numerous Asheville Watchdog requests to provide staffing levels, saying only that the number of doctors is “relatively the same” as it was before the sale.
“Our office is concerned about this and we are looking into it,” Nazneen Ahmed, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Josh Stein, said in a May 5 email after being asked if Stein’s office had been contacted by patients regarding Mission Medical Oncology.
According to Mission’s website, Medical Oncology “brings together an expert team of physicians dedicated to serving western North Carolina with the highest standard of care for cancer and hematologic disorders.”
Five staff members are listed on the website’s Medical Oncology “meet our team” page. They include two oncology/hematology doctors, Michael Burke and Kerri McGovern.
Another oncologist, Dr. Albert Queiry, left Mission Medical Oncology, effective April 21, according to a letter obtained by Asheville Watchdog.
“Our physicians remain committed to providing the highest quality of care to our patients and to serve the needs of our community,” Quiery said in his letter. “However, you have the right to choose your healthcare provider, and we are committed to fully supporting your decision.”
The letter does not specify a reason for Quiery’s decision to leave.
Quiery is now with the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. A person who answered the phone for his Knoxville practice May 4 said he would start there “next week.” Query did not return a message left with that office.
Asheville Watchdog asked Lindell, HCA North Carolina Vice President of Marketing and Communications J.C. Sadler, and HCA North Carolina CEO Greg Lowe to answer questions, including:
- How many doctors will be left in Mission Medical Oncology after the one who left, and the one who is leaving?
- Is it Dr. Albert Quiery who recently left and Dr. Kerri McGovern who is leaving?
- Is Dr. Michael Burke taking any new patients? If not, are patients being referred to Messino and other oncology centers across the region?
- What are Mission’s plans to hire more oncologists? How many doctors does Mission want to have at the oncology department?
- Will Mission patients who are currently receiving treatment at Mission Medical Oncology but whose doctors are leaving be able to continue to receive treatment at Mission, or will they have to get treatment elsewhere?
- How many patients, total, currently receive care at or through Mission Medical Oncology?
Lindell responded to the email reiterating these questions, saying, “[Y]ou have our statement on this topic. We are communicating directly with our patients who may need to transition to doctors within this specific practice or to physicians on our medical staff who are employed by other programs in the area — as noted in the statement. As also noted already, there are no plans to close the Mission Medical Oncology practice. We continue to recruit for and welcome new physicians and care providers to our team.”
Seeking Care Elsewhere
The two departures from Mission Medical Oncology concerned patients, some of whom now are seeking care elsewhere at the advice of a Mission oncologist.
John Frey, 74, started treatment with Mission Medical Oncology early 2022 and is now in remission, visiting a doctor only for blood work and checkups.
“He transferred me over to Messino already,” Frey said of Quiery. “I’m not happy about it. I’m okay to go there. I like the doctor that I saw and that’s who I’m going to go back to, but … if I come out of remission and I go back into a cancer state again, I wouldn’t be happy about it.”
Frey and other patients Asheville Watchdog spoke to said they were told by physicians and other staff members that Medical Oncology was on the verge of losing all its doctors and would be referring patients out to Messino Cancer Centers.
Saralyn Collins’s husband, Marshall Collins, 82, is undergoing treatment through Mission Medical Oncology. Marshall Collins was a patient of Dr. Quiery’s as well. Saralyn Collins said they will now seek care through Messino.
But losing Quiery as a doctor has destabilized their plans, she said.
“I made it very clear to him that if it were necessary, if my husband got worse, if things aren’t going well, I would drive to Knoxville so he could be my husband’s physician again,” Saralyn Collins said.
She spoke highly not only of Quiery but also Mission’s Nurse Navigator program.
“I was overwhelmed,” she said of her own situation, describing herself as a “very proactive patient advocate for my husband.” But she also expressed concern for other Mission Medical Oncology patients who were about to lose a doctor and had no recourse. “I’m just so worried about all of those people who don’t have somebody advocating for them or helping them. It was Dr. Quiery and the nurse navigator program that got us through those first very difficult two or three months.”
“But when you found that the person that you’ve entrusted to get you through one of the most difficult times of your life is leaving because of hospital ineptitude, it is infuriating, it is scary, it’s panicky, and you need time to adjust and think about your options,” Collins said.
Mission did not answer questions about the reason for Quiery and the other doctor’s departures or whether current Medical Oncology patients were being referred out.
‘Risky’ for Patients, Oncologist Says
A local medical oncologist who asked not to be named because of risk to his position said shifting care, as some will be forced to do as a result of doctors leaving Mission Medical Oncology, is risky for patients.
“Any time there’s a serious health issue, whether it’s cancer or heart issue or whatever, changing teams is one of the riskiest times for the patients, because that’s been where there’s the highest likelihood of errors happening,” the oncologist said.
This is especially true, the oncologist added, for oncology patients with long histories of care and established relationships with doctors and nurses.
“I’m assuming — I hope it’s not incorrect — that the oncology department will make sure that all of his records are transferred to Massino,” Saralyn Collins said of her husband’s transition. “But it’s going to be very difficult to catch a new physician up on two years worth of stuff, problems, hospitalizations, different things. I mean, he’s ended up having a complete jaw replacement surgery because of his cancer.”
Asheville Watchdog asked Messino oncologist Martin Palmeri, president of the North Carolina Oncology Association, how doctors leaving Mission Medical Oncology would impact Messino. He noted that the two entities “parted ways” four years ago.
“They don’t really share with me much of their internal comings and goings,” Palmeri said of Mission Medical Oncology. “We don’t have any formal agreements or anything like that in terms of working together. There’s no commitments, nothing of that nature.”
But Palmeri said he’s seen more Mission patients recently.
“If there are things kind of going on from the Mission side of things, again, they haven’t really approached us formally … but I’ve started to see some more patients coming over from Mission surgery that historically I haven’t seen for the last four years. I see a growing number of referrals from Mission surgeons that I just haven’t seen in the past. So that makes me suspect that things are changing internally that are causing these doctors to send their patients out.”
The oncologist who asked not to be named said he, too had seen a recent uptick in Mission patient referrals.
Patient advocate Christine Aiken, who is also a cancer patient, told Asheville Watchdog the people she advocates for are very worried at the prospect of exiting doctors.
“What’s happening right now is patients are terrified,” Aiken said. “They don’t know if they’re being cared for properly. They don’t know who to go to. They don’t understand the relationship between [staffing companies Mission contracts with] and HCA and so they’re basically left in the dark. Not being transparent about the whole thing with the community is creating a lot of unnecessary stress where there’s already a lot of unnecessary stress.”
The departure of doctors from the cancer center follows HCA-Mission’s decision to close its internal pharmacy in March, which Aiken said was also alarming, and which resulted in a letter from Stein’s office asking for an explanation.
HCA Healthcare is the nation’s largest for-profit hospital chain. As of March 31, it operated 180 hospitals, 126 freestanding surgery centers, and 22 freestanding endoscopy centers in 20 states and England.
In documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission this month, HCA stated: “Our primary objective is to provide a comprehensive array of quality health care services in the most cost-effective manner possible.”
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and surrounding communities. Andrew R. Jones is a Watchdog investigative reporter. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.