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Amid ongoing scrutiny of its business practices, physician-staffing giant TeamHealth is now facing a California based class action suit accusing the company of fraudulent patient billing and racketeering.

TeamHealth, based in Knoxville, Tennessee, is one of the largest providers of outsourced clinical staffing and administrative services for hospital-based and freestanding emergency departments in the country.

The company, which was acquired by private equity firm Blackstone Group LP in 2017, operates within 47 states and runs about 3300 acute and post-acute facilities. TeamHealth contracts with hospitals to staff and manage various departments, including emergency, critical care, radiology, and anesthesiology services. The company currently controls about 17% of the emergency medicine market in the United States, according to the legal challenge.

The lawsuit, filed July 10 in US District Court for the Northern District of California, contends that TeamHealth vastly inflates the rates it charges patients and aggressively pursues debt collection if patients fail to pay the inflated prices. The complaint alleges TeamHealth is illegally engaging in the corporate practice of medicine and is avoiding state bans of this practice by operating a web of subsidiaries and purportedly independent organizations.

In a statement to Medscape Medical News, TeamHealth denied the claims and indicated that the company plans to aggressively fight the lawsuit.

“TeamHealth is confident that our billing practices and organizational structure are fully compliant with long established laws and precedents,” TeamHealth said in an emailed statement. “TeamHealth maintains a long-standing practice against balance billing. We believe these claims are wholly without merit and we look forward to vigorously defending ourselves.”

The class action suit claims that TeamHealth is practicing corporate medicine but is able to skirt state laws that prohibit the practice through a spectrum of so-called subsidiaries and “independent” contractors.

As director of the enterprise, TeamHealth controls the terms of its physicians’ employment, all physician staffing decisions, and all the rates its physicians and practice groups charge patients, according to the suit. The complaint claims these rates are inflated far above what is reasonable and customary for the services provided.

The suit’s lead plaintiff, Sia Fraser, claims she experienced just such inflated bills after an emergency department visit. Fraser was treated for emergency gallstone surgery by a physician in a TeamHealth-owned physician group in September 2019 at Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside, California. TeamHealth billed Fraser $1082 for an hour of observation care during the visit, according to the suit. For the same hospital visit, TriCity Medical Center billed Fraser $63 per hour for observation care performed by hospital physicians.

Craig Briskin, an attorney for Fraser with the law firm Justice Catalyst Law, said his team intends to obtain substantial monetary relief for consumers in the case and aim to return fairness and common sense to medical billing.

The suit comes at the heels of growing skepticism about TeamHealth’s practices. The company has come under fire in recent months for reportedly sending surprise bills to patients and slashing physicians’ hours during the coronavirus health crisis, according to ProPublica. One analysis of the company’s records by the news organization found that TeamHealth is substantially marking up medical bills to boost profits. Two TeamHealth affiliates in Texas, for instance, billed 7.7 times more than their actual costs for clinicians and support services, according to the June ProPublica report.

Most ER doctors are not employees of the hospital where they work. Historically they belonged to doctors’ practice groups. In recent years, wealthy private investors have bought out those practice groups and consolidated them into massive nationwide staffing firms like TeamHealth and its largest competitor, KKR-owned Envision Healthcare.