Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis will no longer require AltaPointe Health System doctors to testify in court-ordered hearings to determine the status of patients petitioned for observation, according to an AltaPointe spokeswoman.

In an email message sent Thursday afternoon, Carol Mann wrote that Davis will allow master’s-level clinicians to testify instead of doctors. When needed, attorneys for the court will have an opportunity to interview the doctors at EastPointe hospital in Daphne.

“AltaPointe is pleased that this issue has been resolved,” Mann wrote.

Probate court General Counsel Michael Druhan said doctors have agreed to provide the court with a letter for each patient, during the hearing process. In addition, AltaPointe will provide a member of the patient’s treatment team to testify, if needed.
Druhan said an attorney can still call a doctor to testify in person, if all requirements aren’t met.

About two years ago, Davis began requiring attending physicians at the hospital to testify at merit hearings. Schlesinger said physicians complained about their treatment at the hearings by the presiding judges and attorneys, as well as the amount of time it took away from clinical work each week.

The dispute came to a head recently when one of two doctors in the unit quit, in part because of the way he was treated on the stand and the length of time it took, Schlesinger said. AltaPointe employs a total of 24 physicians throughout its system. A total of five psychiatrists rotate at EastPointe.

Due to the ruling, AltaPointe withdrew a motion it had filed last week, asking Davis to reconsider requiring doctors to testify.

Last week, AltaPointe CEO Tuerk Schlesinger warned of a looming mental health care crisis if the dispute between his agency and the court wasn’t quickly resolved.
The problem escalated Nov. 12 when none of the hospital’s doctors agreed to testify in nine merit cases and the nine patients involved were sent back to the hospital unit, where beds are limited, Schlesinger said.

As for the ruling two years ago, Davis said the court previously allowed a master-level clinician from AltaPointe to use information from medical records to testify in merit hearings through an exemption stating the records were not considered hearsay evidence, or any statement made outside of court. Medical records aren’t considered hearsay evidence if they are made or documented during the same time period an event is taking place.
In hearings two years ago, Davis said attorneys discovered some of the records used in court had been “pre-drafted.”

He said he told AltaPointe about the inconsistency, but it wasn’t addressed. Afterward, Davis decided to call the physicians to testify.

This post was updated to include comments from probate court general counsel.