Doctor claims she was fired after advocating for Golden Valley clinic patients

In a wrongful-termination lawsuit, the former chief medical officer of Golden Valley Health Centers said she was fired for opposing policies that would undermine care for low-income and indigent patients.

Dr. Silvia Diego filed the lawsuit against her former employer Dec. 19 in Stanislaus Superior Court. She was terminated Nov. 17 after serving as a family practice physician since 1996 for Golden Valley, which has more than 20 nonprofit health clinics in Stanislaus and Merced counties.

In her nine years as chief medical officer, Diego performed her duties well and earned the respect of medical staff, administrators and patients at the safety-net clinics, the lawsuit says.

Diego said she opposed a new management policy that sought to increase patient numbers at clinics in response to the wave of Medi-Cal enrollments through the Affordable Care Act. With the support of board members, Chief Executive Officer Tony Weber initiated the plan in September without expanding the medical staff at Golden Valley clinics, the lawsuit says.

Diego advised Weber that without more staff, the patient upturn would reduce the quality of care for patients and undercut Golden Valley’s mission to serve disadvantaged residents of the San Joaquin Valley.

According to the lawsuit, each physician was instructed to see 34 patients per day, an increase from 28, so Golden Valley could boost its revenues and become more competitive with grant applications. Diego argued that would overwhelm doctors who already manage 1,500 to 2,000 patients a year.

Mike Murphy, an attorney for Golden Valley, said Tuesday that the organization has received Diego’s complaint and disputes the allegations. “We trust that all of the facts will come forward in court,” he said.

Supporters gathered outside the civil courts in downtown Modesto as Diego and her attorney filed the lawsuit. Other Golden Valley staff members have challenged Weber for taking disciplinary action against people who disagreed with him, and have lodged complaints with the board of directors.

While expanding the total patient volume for Golden Valley, Weber’s growth initiative would severely limit the number of clinic visits each year for new and established patients, some of whom need ongoing care for chronic illness, critics say.

Weber reportedly told staff members that the Medi-Cal program’s managed-care model will mean Golden Valley won’t be paid based on patient visits but rather on the number of members in its network. Weber, who took over as CEO in May, was hired to fill the shoes of longtime executive director Michael Sullivan, who retired in 2012.

Diego said her comments were viewed as disloyalty to management. She was fired the first time Nov. 11 in a meeting with Weber at Golden Valley’s office in Merced. Diego asked the CEO to reconsider, and she was reinstated, but was terminated a second time the following week.

The lawsuit claims the disciplinary action violated the California Business and Professions Code, which prohibits an employer from firing or penalizing a physician for advocating for “medically appropriate health care” for patients.

Diego is seeking general and punitive damages and will try to recover court costs from the defendants.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at kcarlson@modbee.com or (209) 578-2321.