Leaders of Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, N.H., told employees on Wednesday that they will launch a full review of how the hospital oversees medical care after a Boston Globe Spotlight Team series revealed that a former surgeon there racked up one of the worst surgical malpractice records in the country and that administrators did little to address repeated warnings by employees.
Hospital executives face mounting criticism for concealing problems involving Dr. Yvon Baribeau, a celebrated cardiothoracic surgeon who retired in 2019 after years of complaints and legal claims. The Globe series disclosed that Baribeau settled 21 malpractice claims tied to his work at CMC, including 14 in which he was alleged to have contributed to a patient’s death. His earliest settlement occurred in 1998, but most came soon after his retirement and had provisions requiring the deals be kept secret.
In the wake of the stories, the chairman of a New Hampshire state legislative committee, Representative Mark Pearson, accused CMC of a “coverup” and vowed to launch an investigation into the failures to stop Baribeau earlier, including the role of state regulators.
“This is a challenging time for us and a challenging time for all of you,” said CMC’s chief executive Alex Walker, addressing an online “town hall” for employees Wednesday morning, according to those who attended. “No question it undermines people’s confidence and trust in the organization.”
Walker denied the hospital withheld important information about Baribeau’s work history from the public, and rejected accusations of a coverup. Walker, fielding several skeptical questions from staffers in the first of two meetings with employees on Wednesday, acknowledged that the hospital had suffered a hit to its reputation.
In an e-mail to employees later, Walker said the hospital plans to hire an outside firm to do an independent review of “clinical oversight and accountability, peer review and reporting processes.” He did not say who will conduct the review.
During the meeting, Walker also said he was open to scrutiny from the nonprofit organization that accredited the hospital, saying the group, called the Joint Commission, is aware of the Globe series. “If they want to take a look, we invited that,” Walker said. “And to the extent that we need to make improvements, we will.”
He criticized the Globe for what he described as a “one-sided” story, but said he saw “no reason to get into a back-and-forth publicly with the Globe or with anybody else.” One employee at the session noted that the Globe series quoted current and former employees at CMC about Baribeau’s problems.
Dr. Louis Fink, executive medical director of the New England Heart & Vascular Institute, a unit of CMC where Baribeau worked, also spoke at the meeting. He said that cardiac surgery is inherently risky, but that he believes the hospital provided very good care five years ago and is even better now. Fink, who had defended Baribeau in speaking with the Globe, also announced at the meeting that he will be retiring in May or June.
The allegations have alarmed residents of this close-knit southern New Hampshire community, where the Catholic hospital built one of the biggest heart centers in New England north of Boston. Baribeau, who abruptly retired from the hospital in 2019 at the age of 63 after nearly three decades, was one of CMC’s busiest and best-paid surgeons. He ultimately earned $1 million a year and was a major source of revenue; CMC sometimes received more than $200,000 from a single Baribeau case.
But over the years, medical staff at the hospital repeatedly voiced concerns that Baribeau was harming and even killing patients, allegedly as a result of medical errors and failing to respond to patients in emergencies. In 2017 alone, six of Baribeau’s patients died or were allegedly injured by his surgeries. Several doctors faced retaliation from the administration after they expressed concerns about Baribeau, according to colleagues, a claim the hospital denied.
Baribeau, in a statement relayed by his lawyer, told the Globe that he agreed to settle a group of 17 claims made against him in 2020, covering surgeries over six years, “to avoid lengthy and protracted litigation in my retirement.”
Five physicians were so troubled by alleged mistakes by Baribeau that they separately visited a priest and former appointee of the Manchester diocese to the hospital board of trustees in early 2018 at his church in Bedford to see if he could help. The diocese oversees the hospital. The priest, in a brief Globe interview, declined to confirm the visits. And a spokeswoman for the diocese has declined to comment.
This week, the chairman of a powerful joint legislative committee and a longtime member of the House of Representatives each accused CMC of engaging in what they called a coverup.
“There is a preponderance of evidence, and it has to be dealt with,” Pearson, chairman of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services, said, referring to the articles.
Doctors make mistakes, the Hampstead Republican said in an interview, but CMC appeared to compound the situation by protecting Baribeau and retaliating against his critics.
“Bad stuff happens,” Pearson added. “What do you do next? Why were whistle-blowers punished? . . . Why did doctors suddenly leave? Why were they demoted?”
Pearson was also troubled the state medical board’s online physician profile for Baribeau mentions none of his settlements. In contrast, Baribeau’s profile on the website of the medical board in Massachusetts — where he was licensed but didn’t practice medicine — lists 20 of his malpractice settlements.
Representative Mary Beth Walz, a long-serving Democrat from Bow, said she believes the hospital concealed Baribeau’s long history of surgical problems from patients.
“I think CMC protected this surgeon, and it was a coverup,” Walz said. “They had to know how bad it was.”
Rebecca Ostriker and Liz Kowalczyk of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe. Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at email@example.com.