University of Kentucky to pay former pediatric surgeon more than $1 million in settlement

Dr. Mark Plunkett, a cardiothoracic surgeon who came to UK from the UCLA medical center in 2007, resigned from UK effective Aug. 14, 2013, and accepted a job at the University of Florida.  Photo by Pablo Alcala | 2012 Staff file photo
Dr. Mark Plunkett, a cardiothoracic surgeon who came to UK from the UCLA medical center in 2007, resigned from UK effective Aug. 14, 2013, and accepted a job at the University of Florida. Photo by Pablo Alcala | 2012 Staff file photo Lexington Herald-Leader

University of Kentucky HealthCare will pay Dr. Mark Plunkett more than $1 million as part of a settlement after Plunkett's pediatric cardiothoracic surgery program at UK was shut down and he resigned to take a job at the University of Florida.

The agreement, signed Monday and obtained by the Lexington Herald-Leader under Kentucky's Open Records Act, also gives Plunkett salary supplements over two years to make up the possible difference between his former UK salary of $700,000 and future annual earnings.

If he is unemployed, UK will pay Plunkett $350,000 a year for two years.

Plunkett was recently let go by the University of Florida, according to a statement from that institution.

"After much consideration, we have decided to end Dr. Mark Plunkett's faculty appointment with the University of Florida, which was scheduled to begin on Sept. 1," the statement read. "We have confidence in Dr. Plunkett's capabilities as a surgeon, and this decision is in no way a reflection of concerns about his surgical skills and abilities as a physician. However, at this time, we feel that it is in the best interests of UF that we part ways."

UK officials declined to comment on their settlement with Plunkett, except to say it would be paid out of clinical revenues, not general-fund money or state revenues. As part of the settlement, Plunkett has agreed not to speak to the media.

Plunkett, 53, came to UK in 2007 from the UCLA Medical Center, where he had worked with UK HealthCare CEO Michael Karpf.

According to a recommendation letter from Karpf, which is also part of the settlement, Plunkett built up the division of pediatric cardiothoracic surgery by recruiting faculty from other hospitals, performing "complex and specialized pediatric heart surgeries never previously performed at UK HealthCare," and establishing a thoracic surgery residency program at UK.

In the fall of 2012, UK suspended the pediatric cardiothoracic surgery program, although Plunkett stayed on board until July when he took the offered job at Florida.

Meanwhile, UK waged a legal battle to keep the mortality rates for Plunkett's program secret. But after CNN published a lengthy story on the topic in August and identified two babies who died, UK voluntarily released the mortality rates.

Between 2010 and 2012, UK's rates ranged from 5.2 percent to 7.1 percent. The national rate ranges from 4 percent to 5.3 percent depending on the size of the institution, according to the National Institutes of Health.

Late Thursday, UK released its internal review of its cardiothoracic surgery program, which did not say why the program was shut down. The report did recommend reopening the surgical program with a dedicated cardiac intensive care unit, and a host of specialized doctors, nurses and anesthesiologists with training in pediatric cardiac care.

Those facilities and personnel apparently had not been in place previously.

Details of UK's settlement with Plunkett call for payments of at least $1.05 million but no more than a total of $1.75 million, including:

■ A lump sum of $1.05 million, with $650,000 to be paid in 10 days, and the other $400,000 to be paid after Jan. 1, 2014.

■ Between May 1, 2015, and April 30, 2017, payments of whichever amount is less: $350,000 or the difference between $700,000 and his new annual salary. Plunkett agrees to "exercise diligence and good faith" in finding a new job. If Plunkett is unemployed UK will pay him $350,000 a year.

In return, Plunkett cannot sue UK or any of its affiliates. The two parties cannot disparage each other, and Plunkett will refrain from pursuing lawsuits against any media outlets.

Plunkett also agreed to cooperate with UK in any lawsuits or investigations in which he may be a witness or codefendant.

UK General Counsel William Thro said Wednesday that there have been no lawsuits or settlements related to any of Plunkett's cardiothoracic patients.

On Thursday, Karpf said he had only spoken highly of his former employee,

"I have very high regard for Dr Plunkett," Karpf said. "We think he is a very good pediatric CT surgeon. I'm not somebody who can explain his reasons for resigning, I never, ever laid any blame on Dr. Plunkett for all this."

Tabitha Rainey of Lexington, whose son was operated on by Plunkett, has become a spokeswoman for disgruntled families of former UK pediatric heart patients. Earlier this year, she organized an online petition to pressure UK to release its mortality rates for pediatric heart surgery patients.

"Doesn't that make the public think this suspicious?" Rainey said of the settlement. "They're trying to regain trust, but they don't want to give anything to us. They don't want to say anything, because they know if they do, lawsuits could happen. It's aggravating."

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