This is an open letter to Castle Connolly Medical, published at: emilysuess.com/open-letter-castle-connolly-top-doctors

I am writing about a concern I have regarding Lee Hartner, a doctor named in your Top Doctors list at www.phillymag.com. If there is a better place to direct this communication, please let me know whom I should contact, and I will write them directly.

My name is Emily Suess, and I am a disabled brain cancer patient who lives in Urbana, IL. In March of this year, my long-term disability insurance carrier, Lincoln Financial Group, cancelled my disability claim and stopped paying my benefit. Following the cancellation of my benefit, I, as the claim holder, have been forced into a lengthy appeals process while I go unpaid by my insurer. 

During that appeals process, Lincoln Financial Group acquired the services of Reliable Review Services (RRS). In exchange for payment, RRS provided a doctor to support LFG’s denial of benefits. That doctor was Lee Hartner, MD, PA – MD423656. 

That Dr. Hartner accepted money to wrongfully claim my brain tumor is not disabling and I am able to return to work not only has consequences that are devastating to me financially, it calls into question the reputation of Castle Connolly and the “Top Doctors” designation.

In the report Dr. Hartner was paid to provide, he casually dismissed my primary physician’s determination of disability–which is meticulously supported and documented in progress notes–and told the insurer that I am able to return to work.

Dr. Hartner’s report claimed that I am in “remission.” Having never heard this from any of my treating physicians, I was shocked to first see it in a report which attempts to discredit my primary physician’s observations so that Lincoln Financial Group can justify cancelling my claim.

Furthermore, in his report for Lincoln Financial Group, Dr. Hartner noted phone calls he made to my primary physician in relation to my case, presumably to lend credence to the assumption he would complete a thorough review. However, after playing phone tag with my primary physician for a bit, he eventually told her office staff that he “did not need to talk with [her] at this time.” He never spoke with her, and this is documented in written correspondence between me and my primary physician’s office.

There did seem to be conflicting information coming from my oncologist’s office at the time of Dr. Hartner’s report that was contrary to my primary physician’s findings. However, Dr. Hartner made no good-faith attempt to investigate further. When I had a chance to ask my oncologist’s office about it, a written statement deferring to my primary physician’s opinion on the matter (citing the infrequent visits required by medical oncology and my primary physician’s familiarity with my full history as reasons for his statement) was provided.

Even if Dr. Hartner wasn’t sure of my primary physician’s disability determination, and he was too busy to bother looking further, I would have expected a finding of “insufficient documentation” or “conflicting reports.” Certainly nothing so ridiculously biased in favor of Lincoln Financial Group as his report turned out to be. Even my own oncologist had the humility to acknowledge he didn’t have the most informed opinion on the matter.

My purpose in writing this letter is to ask that Castle Connolly be made aware of what has happened to me and that your physician-directed research team thoughtfully review whether it is appropriate for Dr. Lee Hartner to keep the designation of Top Doctor. While what he did appears to be legal, I believe—based on the information you present on your website—that you hold those who make your list to a slightly higher standard.

I also ask that you inform me if and how this matter will be addressed, as I believe patients who use your list for finding physicians should know to what extent they can trust it.

Sincerely,
Emily Suess