Mission Hospital’s cancer center will lose its last remaining medical oncologist next month.
Dr. Michael Burke, the lone oncologist listed on the cancer center’s website, told Asheville Watchdog he will leave Mission’s medical oncology practice at the end of November.
Burke said he didn’t know whether another medical oncologist would be hired before he left.
“I’ve been preparing for there not to be anybody come Nov. 27,” Burke said. “That has been, I think, the only responsible thing to do on my end.”
The Watchdog emailed Mission Hospital spokesperson Nancy Lindell a number of questions, including:
- Will there be any medical oncologists at Mission after Burke’s departure?
- Has Mission hired a new medical oncologist yet?
- If so, whom have they hired?
- If not, is there any timeline on when a new medical oncologist will start?
- Where is Dr. Burke going?
- Greg Lowe has said in letters to the attorney general’s office that there are no plans to close medical oncology practice or reduce services: How will that be possible if there are no medical oncologists?
Lindell answered none of the questions, instead responding in an email with largely identical language used in her responses for previous Watchdog stories about doctors leaving the Mission system since HCA Healthcare acquired it in 2019.
“As stated previously, Mission Hospital continues to have a robust team delivering oncology services in a range of specialties — breast, colorectal, hepatobiliary, gynecological, infusion, interventional, medical, orthopedic sarcoma, pediatric, plastics, radiation, surgical, thoracic, urological and more,” Lindell stated.
“We have relatively the same number of physicians on our medical staff today as we have had in previous years,” Lindell added. “There are several oncology options in this community.”
Burke said his “overwhelming” concern right now is for his patients and the future of their care.
“I’ve been working, I would say tirelessly since I submitted my resignation in May, to make sure that all the patients have continuity of care,” Burke said. “I’ve been assuring them that we’re continuing care for as long as possible, so that nothing is missed, nothing is dropped until the day they meet a new provider.”
He said he has been telling his patients they need to be established with a new oncology group outside of Mission.
“I’m really trying to make sure that they have a continuity of care, and they’re not subject to the vicissitudes that everybody’s experiencing right now with all the changes and everything at Mission,” Burke said.
Burke said he would continue practicing oncology “up North” but did not want to say where exactly.
Assistant Attorney General Llogan Walters wrote an HCA executive on June 20 about the North Carolina Department of Justice’s concerns that the practice had just one medical oncologist “where it once had fourteen” and warned the hospital needed to “restaff the medical oncology department immediately” or risk litigation.
Llogan’s letter asked HCA North Carolina Division President Greg Lowe to provide the number of oncologists employed by the Mission medical oncology practice for each month since February 2019, the name of each one employed by the practice since January 31, 2019, and the dates of their first and last days of employment.
Lowe responded in an Oct. 4 letter obtained by The Watchdog that included a chart showing the dates of employment for the five full-time oncologists hired since early 2020. Four have left the hospital. Burke’s dates of employment are listed as July 6, 2021, to Nov. 26, 2023.
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein did not object to the $1.5 billion sale of nonprofit Mission to for-profit HCA after the corporation committed to his demands for greater consumer protections.
Nashville-based HCA Healthcare’s 15 commitments included promises to “keep material facilities open for at least 10 years” and “continue specified services for at least 10 years.”
Despite the departures, Lowe’s letter stated that the oncology practice will remain open.
“Mission Health System (“Mission”) remains deeply committed to providing quality oncology services to cancer patients in Western North Carolina, and there are no plans to reduce such services at the Cancer Center nor to close the Mission Medical Oncology practice,” he wrote.
Lindell, Mission’s spokeswoman, pointed in May to Messino Cancer Centers as a partner, saying that although Mission was down to a single medical oncologist, the hospital “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.”
Now, the last remaining staff medical oncologist is departing, GenesisCare Surgery has declared bankruptcy causing the loss of some local oncologists, and Messino Cancer Centers announced to acute leukemia patients that it would no longer send them to Mission, citing potentially dangerous system failures at the hospital.
Lowe’s letter follows another he sent Stein’s office in May, saying Mission was recruiting for three open positions but was encountering “headwinds in hiring and retaining oncologists.”
In response to a request from Stein’s office, Lowe provided statistics on the medical oncology practice but warned they may not be precise due to the way data is entered.
The statistics showed that Mission had already canceled 45 medical oncology appointments between January and June this year, compared to 60 for all of 2022, 51 for 2021 and 45 for 2020.
Lowe also fulfilled the attorney general’s request for data about referrals made to non-Mission oncology practices from the beginning of 2019 through June 2023. It showed nearly 3,000 patients have been referred out, including 232 in 2023 and nearly 1,500 in 2019.
Lowe told the attorney general’s office in an Aug. 21 letter that Mission medical oncologists had seen more than 3,000 new patients between January 2020 and June 2023. Medical oncologists had seen 563 new patients in 2023 alone, according to the data Lowe provided.
The Watchdog in April 2022 first reported on a depletion of doctors including medical oncologists at Mission. In May 2023 Mission confirmed two doctors had left medical oncology and attorney general spokesperson Nazneed Ahmed told The Watchdog the office was examining issues there.
Mission has faced growing scrutiny from Stein’s office this year after its decision to shutter a cancer center pharmacy in March, the exodus of its medical oncologists and, most recently, the decision by Messino Cancer Centers to stop providing some acute chemotherapy at Mission facilities.
That decision cited “ongoing system failures” at Mission Hospital, which Messino said were going to ultimately harm patients, and will force some patients to seek care in Charlotte, roughly two hours from Asheville, or Duke Cancer Center in Durham, nearly three and a half hours away.
Messino Cancer Centers have practice privileges on Mission’s floor K9, which is separate from Mission’s cancer center.
Stein’s office has written four letters to Lowe since late February, asking for information about cancer services. The most recent, dated Sept. 29, asked Mission how it will address Messino’s decision to stop providing acute leukemia care at the hospital and whether GenesisCare’s recent bankruptcy would affect services at Mission.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Andrew R. Jones is a Watchdog investigative reporter. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.