Veterinarian fired from Banfield sues company

Alleges hospital values money over good medicine

Published: June 01, 2010
By Edie Lau

A veterinarian fired from a Banfield, The Pet Hospital, clinic outside Portland, Ore., is taking the company to court, claiming he was wrongfully discharged after he complained that his employers engaged in unethical medical and business practices that endangered the well-being of patients and gouged their owners.

Dr. Robert Nix is seeking repayment of lost earnings in excess of $199,000 plus interest, up to $300,000 more for emotional distress and reimbursement for legal fees. He also wants his job back.

Banfield rebutted the accusations. “Banfield has, and always will, put the health and wellness of pets at the forefront of our practice. We strive to provide the highest-quality veterinary medicine to the pets we treat,” Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, senior vice president and chief medical officer for Banfield, said in a written statement provided to VIN News Service.

Klausner added that the company is deeply concerned about Nix’s claims and statements, which he called false and unfounded.

“There is no merit to the allegations, and Banfield intends to vigorously defend against the claims,” he said. “Not only do these allegations negatively impact our clients and our associates, but it also creates a false perception among our veterinary colleagues and industry partners. Our approach to delivering ... high-quality medicine is simple: We recommend the best course of action for the pets we treat each and every time — no more, no less.”

Founded and headquartered in Portland, Banfield is the nation’s largest veterinary hospital chain. The privately held company operates more than 750 clinics, most of which are located in PetSmart stores.

Why Nix wishes to return to an employer that he claims provides substandard care is unclear. His lawyer, Mitra Shahri of Portland, turned down a request to interview her and her client, referring VIN News Service to the legal complaint.

The 28-page complaint, filed in Circuit Court of the State of Oregon in Multnomah County, draws in detail an unflattering picture of Banfield’s Nyberg Woods Urgent Care Center, which opened in fall 2007 in Tualatin. The suit alleges the facility advertised emergency services that it did not provide and overcharged clients to boost faltering revenues in a slow economy.

Banfield has not yet submitted a formal response to the suit, which was filed April 27. According to the court, the defendant must respond within 30 days of the date the suit is served. That date is unclear because the court has no service documents on file, and a Banfield spokeswoman did not have the information.

According to the suit, Nix previously worked for Banfield in Gastonia, N.C., and Vancouver, Wash. He returned to the company in 2007, taking a position at Nyberg Woods, a new clinic in Tualatin, Ore. Within a few months of working there, he was made chief of staff, the suit states.

The suit describes problems starting when the facility acquired an ultrasound machine “with the expectation of increased diagnostic billing, which would bring more money into the facility.”

In addition to being “encouraged” to use the machine at least once a week, veterinarians were instructed by Banfield to send out the images for interpretation rather than reading them in-house, counter to a recommendation in Banfield’s own “best-practices manual,” according to the allegations. The suit states that images were sent to RemoteVet, a telemedicine company owned by Merlin Technologies Corp., maker of the ultrasound machine, which in turn was owned by Banfield.

In short, the suit alleges, “At every step of the ultrasound process, Banfield expected a financial return.”

(Banfield sold Merlin Digital Technology in 2008 to Eklin Medical Systems, Inc., which in 2009 was acquired by VCA Antech.)

The suit states further that facility doctors received what Nix believes to be an inadequate amount of training on the machine — three days’ worth — and unlicensed veterinary technicians, known in company parlance as “PetNurses,” were engaged in making ultrasound images, as well.

The suit describes a case handled by one of Nix’s colleagues involving a young cat, “M,” who presented with acute renal failure. The cat did not respond to intensive fluid therapy and antibiotics, and an ultrasound and repeated lab work did not net a diagnosis.

After a week, as the cat’s owner began considering euthanasia, Nix insisted that M be sent to another facility for an ultrasound by a trained radiologist, the suit states. The results it describes are damning:

“The radiologist quickly identified blockage in both ureters and a cyst that had been missed by the ultrasound at the Nyberg Woods. Once treated for the blockage, M recovered and was sent home with antibiotics. ...

“Later, Plaintiff discovered that a simple X-ray had been taken prior to the ultrasound for which the patient was charged but the X-ray was never viewed. Upon review, Plaintiff realized that the X-ray clearly showed the problem, but no one on the treatment team had reviewed it or been trained to read properly. ... As a result, the client spent a large sum of money on diagnosis and treatment that could have been avoided.”

Nix expressed concerns by e-mail to a supervisor outside the facility, the suit states, but the supervisor was unsympathetic. A few months later, Nix was relieved of his “chief of staff” title without explanation, according to the suit.

In fall 2008, the suit alleges, the company decided to try to pump up revenues at Nyberg Woods by keeping the center open until 11 p.m. to attract urgent cases for which it could charge for lab work and initial triage treatment. The most serious cases would then be referred to Tualatin Emergency Clinic.

The plan went into effect with deadly consequences, according to the suit. It describes a case involving a dog brought in with a swollen abdomen that was found to be filled with a dark green and black fluid. Nix, who was not scheduled to work at the time but had “stopped by ... to visit,” suggested the animal be sent immediately to Tualatin Emergency Clinic. The veterinarian on duty, however, opted to keep the patient overnight, placing a drain in its abdomen and sedating the animal, the suit states.

The practitioner performed surgery the next morning, the suit reads, “But by then, the dog’s condition had deteriorated. It continued to deteriorate until it was transferred to Tualatin Emergency Clinic, where it died. Plaintiff felt the dog’s care fell seriously below the professional standards for a pet hospital and the state practice standards, constituting at least animal neglect and abuse. Worse, the dog’s owners had paid approximately $3,000 for this substandard care ...”

Shortly after, Nix gave 90-days’ notice, as required by his contract, that he intended to quit, according to the suit. The next day, his supervisor fired him, “claiming Plaintiff was being fired for speaking rudely to a new doctor and for getting angry over a bilateral ear canal surgery that had allegedly occurred several weeks earlier,” the document states.

The Oregon State Veterinary Medical Examining Board could not comment on whether Nix brought his complaints to the board’s attention. Board Executive Director Lori Makinen said only disciplinary actions can be divulged. She noted that the board licenses individual veterinarians, not medical facilities.

News of the suit was reported in late April by The Oregonian newspaper of Portland and has since circulated nationally among media outlets.

Nix’s legal complaint is posted on his lawyer's website.


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