Iowa surgeon accuses ‘monopolistic’ Wolfe Clinic of antitrust violations

By: - October 7, 2021 10:57 am

A civil lawsuit accusing one of Iowa’s largest eye care providers is heavily redacted, concealing from public view many of the allegations against the company. (Photo by Clark Kauffman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

One of Iowa’s largest eye care providers is being sued by a physician and former shareholder for alleged antitrust violations and monopolistic business practices.

Wolfe Clinic, also known as Wolfe Eye Clinic, and three of its individual owner-physicians, Dr. Jared Nielsen, Dr. Kyle Alliman, and Dr. David Saggau, are accused by a former colleague of engaging in anticompetitive and exclusionary practices “to ensure Wolfe Clinic maintains a monopoly” in Des Moines, Fort Dodge and Spencer.

According to court records, Wolfe Clinic has 21 locations throughout Iowa and employs more than 400 people.

The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court by a surgeon and one-time shareholder of the clinic, Dr. George Par, an ophthalmologist who specializes in vitreoretinal surgery and deals with retinal detachment, diabetic eye disease, macular degeneration and other patient issues.

In an unusual move, the publicly accessible version of Par’s lawsuit has been heavily redacted, with roughly 19 pages of content in the 51-page petition blacked out. The redactions conceal information that, according to Par’s lawyers, Wolfe Clinic says must be kept confidential due to a contractual agreement between Par and the clinic.

As a result, the nature of some of Par’s claims are not publicly disclosed. Even those portions of the lawsuit that deal with the court’s jurisdiction over the case and the relief sought by Par have been partially blacked out, although the court itself has access to the unredacted petition.

In the lawsuit, Par claims Alliman once told his colleagues at Wolfe, “Gone are the days of concern with regards to stepping on some toes to expand our market; we can become the market.” Par alleges that when he emerged as a potential competitor who might loosen the “Wolfe Clinic’s stranglehold” over vitreoretinal care in Iowa, the clinic schemed to defame him, shut off referrals from other eye doctors, and prevent his patients from seeing him.

Par alleges that to protect and enlarge its market share, Wolfe Clinic has opened optometry clinics in Iowa communities for the express purpose of referring all of the lucrative surgical work in those areas to its own surgeons – even if the clinics operate at a loss.

He also claims that the optometrists employed at each of Wolfe’s vision centers provide a “network of virtually automatic referrals” to Wolfe’s surgeons, and that the optometrists are paid more “so that Wolfe Clinic can obtain referrals” from them.

The end result, he says, is that that despite Des Moines’ small market size, retina surgeons at Wolfe Clinic “are among the highest earning retina surgeons in the nation.”

Wolfe Clinic has yet to file a response to the lawsuit.

Court records indicate Par grew up in New York and was recruited by Wolfe to come to Iowa after graduating from New York University. He began seeing patients at one of Wolfe Clinic’s Iowa locations in 2016. In 2018, he became a shareholder and member of Wolfe’s board of directors, but in 2020, he left Wolfe and founded Par Retina, which serves Des Moines area,

Par alleges Wolfe’s “anti-competitive scheme” included shutting off surgical referrals to him from other Iowa doctors; giving instructions to the clinic staff that they were to falsely advise inquiring patients they did not know Par’s whereabouts; and the dissemination of false, derogatory information that suggested Par was in some sort of professional trouble.

A number of patients have requested that Wolfe Clinic send their medical records to Par, but the transfer either hasn’t taken place or has been delayed, Par alleges. “As a result, patient care suffered,” the lawsuit claims.

Par alleges that after he defected from Wolfe Clinic, each of Wolfe’s retina surgeons “began seeing approximately 90 patients a day, when they had previously been seeing 50 patients each day,” leading to poor patient outcomes and work being delegated to “unsupervised trainees.”

The lawsuit includes 13 counts of alleged wrongdoing, some of which are redacted in their entirety.

Those that are publicly disclosed include allegations of monopolization, defamation, civil conspiracy and interference with business relationships.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.