Aspen Valley Hospital surgeon says he was unfairly terminated

Andre Salvail
The Aspen Times
John Schultz

An Aspen Valley Hospital surgeon says he was terminated unfairly after nearly nine years of service because he and the surgeon who outranks him sometimes didn’t get along.

Dr. John Schultz said Wednesday that his firing — initiated by the hospital’s other surgeon, Dr. Bill Rodman, and upheld by the hospital’s board of directors — was handled unprofessionally, without due process and with disregard for patient care. Just weeks before the board met in executive session in early April to discuss the matter, Schultz said, he was in talks with hospital officials about ending his status as a contract player and becoming a direct employee of the health care facility.

Though Schultz, 44, officially will be allowed to care for his patients until June 17, he said he’s been booted out of Rodman’s North Mill Street office and has no access to patient records. He’s working temporarily, with no staff, out of Dr. Gail King’s obstetrics and gynecology office on West Main Street.

“Honestly, my goose is cooked here,” Schultz said. “The cronyism goes pretty deep at that hospital. This whole experience has been very enlightening and disheartening. It disgusts me the way these cronies are running that hospital, behind closed doors, to serve their own self-interests rather than what is generally right for the community.”

An employee at Rodman’s office said he was out of the country and would not be able to return phone messages until next week.

John Sarpa, chairman of the taxpayer-supported hospital’s board of directors, takes over as interim CEO of the 25-bed health care facility on Saturday. CEO Dave Ressler announced his resignation last month and will become a top administrator soon at Tucson Medical Center in Arizona, a 600-bed hospital. Sarpa and Ressler were the public face of the hospital during recent negotiations with the Aspen City Council over the continued expansion of the facility — overall, a $140 million-plus project.

Sarpa declined to discuss details of Rodman’s firing when reached for comment Wednesday. However, Sarpa said Schultz’s release was basically Rodman’s decision and that the board simply gave its consent after meeting in closed session.

Schultz said he has had a successful career at the hospital with high marks from patients. He said he was hired by Rodman in 2004 to assist the elder surgeon, who enjoys a special contract with the hospital as its “exclusive provider” of surgical services. Such arrangements are now considered outdated in the health care industry, he said, and both he and Rodman were looking to become direct employees within the hospital’s recently expanded campus environment.

“There are a number of these exclusive-provider service contracts at the hospital which are very antiquated, and I think you’d be very hard-pressed to find one of these contracts or any other hospital that still operates that way today,” Schultz said.

Though Schultz said he knows Dr. Mindy Nagle and Dr. Barry Mink — ­ two of five publicly elected members of the hospital board ­— he said he’s hardly ever spoken to two other board members: Sarpa, a developer, or Chuck Frias, a real estate executive. Another board member, attorney Lee Schumacher, is Rodman’s close friend, Schultz said.

He said the board should have followed proper protocol by asking him about his relationship with Rodman before blessing Rodman’s termination request, which required board approval.

Schultz said he met with Ressler on April 17, a week after Ressler announced that he would resign in late May, and was told that although the hospital had been talking with him about becoming a hospital employee, Rodman decided otherwise.

“I walked in, and Ressler said, ‘John, we’ve decided that in order for this to work long term, we have to have two physicians that have a productive working relationship together, and we don’t feel you and Bill do. So we’re going to give Bill permission to terminate your contract,’” Schultz said.

He said the hospital asked him to sign “a very unusual agreement” that only would have given him 60 days of pay and two weeks of hospital privileges. Additionally, the agreement stated that he could not have any contact with hospital employees or facilities and that he could not talk about his departure other than to say that they “mutually agreed to part ways and I had decided to move on.”

Schultz refused to sign it.

“My attorneys promptly told me, ‘Hell no, don’t sign that,’” Schultz said.

On April 30, he received a “demand letter” from a Denver attorney, which sought to force Schultz to resign his hospital privileges within 24 hours and to vacate Rodman’s office.

“It said, ‘Here’s what we’re going to pay you,’ which was considerably less than what he owed me through the original contract,” Schultz said. “I wasn’t about to abide by that. I didn’t make it antagonistic in any way toward Bill.”

Schultz said that when he left Rodman’s office, he told him that he would continue to care for his patients through June 17.

Asked why he and Rodman had a difficult partnership, Schultz said the quality of his surgical skills and patient care might have been a factor.

“We’ve had a contentious relationship at times,” he said. “Not to toot my own horn, but I’m a younger, better surgeon. That word has gotten out. He has felt threatened by me for a long time. Many of his patients have wanted to switch over to me. He thinks I make him look bad.”

Schultz said that if his supporters in the community desire it, he might attend the board’s next meeting on June 10 to get some direct answers from the directors about their decision to uphold the termination.