After appearing to come to an agreement last week over the necessity of staff psychiatrists testifying in involuntary commitment hearings, it seems that AltaPointe Health Systems and Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis have once again reached an impasse.

At issue is Davis’ requirement that doctors testify in hearings to determine if more treatment is necessary for a person involuntarily petitioned for observation at AltaPointe’s EastPointe Hospital in Daphne. AltaPointe CEO Tuerk Schlesinger said the requirement takes doctors away from their patients for too long and asked to allow master’s-level clinicians to attend the hearings instead.

Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis.

Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis.

Davis has imposed the requirement on AltaPointe doctors for almost three years, citing inconsistencies in the hospital’s medical record keeping.

Late last week it appeared the health group and the court had reached an agreement but now, it appears both sides disagree with the terms.

“Attorneys representing AltaPointe and the court are meeting privately to try to work out an agreement on merit hearing procedures,” AHS spokeswoman Carol Mann wrote in an email Monday.

Under the proposal, AltaPointe doctors would not be required to testify in every merit hearing, but would be called upon if needed. Davis also ruled that lawyers would be allowed to interview doctors at the Daphne hospital, if needed.

One sticking point of the agreement regards who will be allowed to testify in the doctors’ absence.

In a statement Thursday, Mann wrote that Davis would allow master’s-level clinicians to testify, which is what AHS had asked for initially. But Probate Court General Counsel J. Michael Druhan said a Ph.D. level psychologist would be required to testify under the new guidelines. Druhan added that doctors have agreed to send letters to court during the hearing process. He said an attorney could still call a doctor to testify.

Partners in the Midtown law firm of Tobias, McCormick and Comer represented six patients at merit hearings last week.
Desi Tobias said he’s in favor of Davis’ ruling and is disappointed that it appears to have hit a snag.

“The agreement was reasonable and professional,” he said.

Bryan Comer, who has a client in court this week, said he’s glad attorneys can call a doctor to testify, if needed. In the case before the court this week, Comer said he has subpoenaed the attending physician because of inconsistencies between medical records and the doctor’s opinion.

“It’s part of the vetting process to bring the doctor in (to testify),” Comer said. “Medical records can be inconsistent and you want the psychiatrist there to clear up that inconsistency.”

Comer said in five of the six cases he witnessed last week, the testimony of a clinician working off records and a doctor’s recommendation would have sufficed.

“The point of the deal is it’s on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

In a previous story, AltaPointe doctors argued about the amount of time the court took out of their schedules. They also complained about the treatment they received from attorneys and judges in court.

Comer refuted those claims. He said doctors are cross-examined, but the proceedings are always “polite and professional.” Also, he said most hearings take about 10 minutes.

In a transcript taken from last week’s merit hearings, Davis asked AltaPointe to apologize for what he called a “media blitz” in recent weeks.

“I am calling publicly for an apology from AltaPointe’s board of directors to the respondents, their families, the lawyers involved in this case and the Mobile community for what has occurred,” he said. “Everyone needs to remember, AltaPointe is not a private corporation. This conduct that occurred is not acceptable in my view of any entity private, or public, but it’s even more reprehensible in my view because AltaPointe is owned by the citizens of Mobile and Washington counties.”