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Doctors call for Phoebe CEO's resignation

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August 25, 2004

Albany-- The battle lines are drawn, and it's doctors versus Phoebe Putney administrators. Dougherty County Medical Society is highly critical of the hospital's decision to sue a man who helped gather information on Phoebe for a class action lawsuit.

The doctors say the hospital is violating the man's rights and the suit is counterproductive to providing quality health care. They portray the hospital with a heart as heartless.

After a class action lawsuit was filed against Phoebe for overcharging uninsured patients, Phoebe went after a man who helped gather information for that suit. Hospital administrators filed a suit of their own against Charles Rehberg. As a result, doctors are calling for Phoebe's CEO to resign.

The doctors say Phoebe is trying to bully a man who helped gather information on the hospital. Dr. Daniel Rhoads is the Medical Society president. "The general feeling of the membership last night, is that it's inappropriate for an organization such as Pheobe Putney hospital to use public funds to intimidate individuals who are using their first amendment rights and freedom of speech."

Intimidation that Charles Rehberg says happened outside his office, Albany Surgical P. C. Rehberg blew the whistle on Phoebe because he says he was accosted by two men who threatened him and his family.

Phoebe's lawyer Rick Langley says they're not suing Rehberg because he helped a lawyer gather information on the hospital. "[The accusations] That is absolutely and categorically untrue."

But, it is true that since the lawsuit was filed, doctors in the medical society are asking hospital CEO Joel Wernick, who has been Phoebe administrator since 1988, to resign. The resolution says the lawsuit against Rehberg "Represents a serious challenge to our constitutional right to free speech."

Phoebe says it's suing Rehberg for jamming hospital fax machines with Phoebe Factoids, info sheets outlining everything from Phoebe's Cayman Island bank accounts to Joel Wernick's huge $700,000 annual salary.

But Phoebe says the Factoids crossed the line. Langley: "This campaign depicts Joel Wernick of being in the Klu Klux Klan and accuses the hospital of having floors that are all white and all black. This sort of conduct is so reprehen... it absolutely demands a response."

And the Medical Society agrees, but "We have no legal authority over the hospital except for practicing medicine," said Rhoads.

I spoke to member of the Dougherty County Medical Society who supports Joel Wernick. He says the resolution was passed by 35 members who attended the meeting.

Phoebe claims all this got started with a prior incident between the hospital and Albany Surgical. According to Phoebe's attorney, Albany Surgical PC wanted to add a free standing center to their building, but the state denied them. They say that's why the Phoebe Factoids began.

South Georgia newspaper readers came face to face with the Phoebe flap this morning. A full page ad was bought by the Scruggs Law Firm of Mississippi. Attorney Richard Scruggs, is suing Phoebe and 45 other hospitals for overcharging uninsured patients.

Written as a letter to the citizens of Albany, the ad condemns "intimidating actions taken by Phoebe Putney Hospital" against Charles Rehberg.

Reberg, who works for a doctor's office in Albany, helped Scruggs gather info on Phoebe for the class action suit. The ad states Charles Rehberg faces "threats, a lawsuit, and a smear campaign funded with tax dollars."

Phoebe's lawyer says his detectives did not threaten Rehberg when they confronted him.

"They are both retired agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They conducted their activities, I am absolutely as they should. Everything was open and above board," said Phoebe's Attorney Rick Langley .

The full page ad challenges readers to ask doctors what they think about Phoebe's business practices. A full page advertisement in the Albany newspaper costs $5,900.

updated at 5:30PM by dave.miller@walb.com