Small-town physician relocates, leaving behind debts and lawsuit

SIDNEY — For more than seven years, Suzie Gaines considered Dr. Maher Ahmad her family doctor.

So she was stunned when she heard at a local convenience store that he'd left town without sending a letter to her or her family, or even leaving a sign on his office door.

"Nobody in Sidney understands why he did this," she said.

An internal medicine doctor who came to Sidney 13 years ago, Ahmad left more than baffled patients behind when he moved his offices to Champaign in mid-October.

He left a trail of debts and pending litigation.

Here is some of what has come to light in recent weeks:

— Ahmad left his medical office building at 210 S. David St., Sidney, nine months behind on his mortgage payments, according to Dr. Martin Koeck of Sidney, husband of the mortagee, Doris Koeck.

— Both installments of Ahmad's property taxes on the Sidney office building for 2010 totaling $1,233.92 went unpaid, and went into the tax sale Oct. 28, according to the Champaign County treasurer's office.

— The Internal Revenue Service filed two tax liens against all of Ahmad's properties this year, one that remains for an unpaid $25,554 balance on employer withholding taxes for 2009, and another for $11,564 on his income taxes for 2010, according to information on file at the Champaign County recorder of deeds office.

The latter lien has been released.

— The News-Gazette filed a small-claims suit against Ahmad for unpaid advertising, seeking $6,125 plus court costs. After making a $1,000 payment, Ahmad still owes about $5,304, according to Kara Wade, an attorney at Webber & Thies, an Urbana law firm.

— Koeck's daughter and Ahmad's former employee, Christine Reifsteck, has filed a lawsuit against Ahmad, accusing him of deducting money from her paychecks for her health insurance and not making the premium payments.

The lawsuit also contends Ahmad still owes Reifsteck two paychecks totaling more than $1,600.

Reifsteck, who eventually quit working for Ahmad in June, didn't learn her health insurance had lapsed until after her husband, Duane, had carpal tunnel surgery at a cost of more than $8,000, according to the lawsuit. A motion to dismiss the suit is pending.

Reifsteck — who now works for Dr. Susan Mantell in Philo — says many of Ahmad's former patients didn't know where to find Ahmad after he left Sidney and have since become patients of Mantell's.

"We had an 80-year-old man stand in our waiting room and cry and say, 'Why did he do this?'" she said.

Ahmad has not returned phone calls to The News-Gazette, including one in which he agreed to be interviewed by phone.

His attorney in the Reifsteck lawsuit, Urbana lawyer Donald Parkinson, also has not returned a call from The News-Gazette.

A doctor for Sidney

Martin Koeck, who was Sidney's local physician for 45 years, remembers Provena Covenant Medical Center opening a rural health clinic in town after he retired, and then closing it in the mid-1990s.

He also remembers the call he got from Ahmad, who was then completing his internal-medicine residency program sponsored by the University of Illinois.

A community group had formed to bring a doctor to Sidney after the Provena clinic closed, and Ahmad told Koeck he was willing to be that doctor, Koeck said.

Ahmad had gone to medical school in Kuwait and wanted to work on getting his green card to become a permanent U.S. resident, Koeck recalls, so "it was good for him and good for us."

The community group purchased the building and got it ready for Ahmad, and Koeck said, considerable time and expense also went into helping him get his green card.

In 2004, Ahmad assumed the group's mortgage on the building, and entered into a 10-year contract with Koeck to buy the property and equipment inside for $65,000.

According to terms of the contract, Ahmad would be in default of the agreement if he "shall liquidate, merge, dissolve, terminate or suspend business operations" or transfer, sell or otherwise dispose of any of the assets in the building "without prior written consent" of Koeck.

"We wanted to set it up so he wouldn't work temporarily and then leave," Koeck said.

Did Ahmad have his permission to close his business in Sidney and move to Champaign? Koeck says Ahmad never asked.

He learned Ahmad had plans to leave when the husband of one of Ahmad's former employees turned up on his doorstep and told him that his wife hadn't been paid and Ahmad was about to relocate, Koeck said.

"In the contract we had with him, it said he couldn't leave without permission and he certainly did leave without permission, and it was a shocker to me," Koeck said.

Koeck said he went and confronted Ahmad, and the younger doctor acknowledged he was leaving, saying he felt people in Sidney were talking about him and banding against him.

"I said, I don't hear anything about you except you're a great doctor," Koeck said. "They get mad when you don't show up and they can't get ahold of you."

Reifsteck, who has limited power of attorney for her father, has since had Ahmad served with two legal notices.

One is a notice that the purchase agreement is suspended due to two events of default related to liens that have been placed against the property and the transfer of his medical practice to Champaign without permission.

Another notice demands Ahmad provide proof of insurance on the building and its contents, plus his business financial statements for the years 2009-2011, any profit and loss statements prepared for the business and tax returns for 2009 and 2010.

Koeck recalls much of Ahmad's time in Sidney favorably and says Ahmad had been taking good care of his patients. Now he says he shakes his head and says, "What in the world is going on?"

"It's just a heartache and a headache," Koeck says. "We were so pleased to have him."

A good practice in Sidney

In an interview for a previous story in The News-Gazette, Ahmad said he had a good practice in Sidney. But one of the reasons he wanted to move to Champaign was that he had trouble hiring employees willing to work in a rural community.

Reifsteck, however, wasn't the only employee who contends she had to stop working for Ahmad because he'd stopped paying her.

Ahmad's longtime office manager, Ruthie Parish of Homer, said she stuck with Ahmad for two months after he stopped paying her, but she has a disabled husband and bills to pay.

Parish recalls she once had a good relationship with her employer and remembers one occasion when her car had been broken into and Ahmad simply handed her $350 to get the windshield fixed.

She continued working for Ahmad until Sept. 23, waiting on eight weeks of pay because she knew he was having problems and she trusted him, she said.

But her trust has soured. She has been to Ahmad's office twice, asking for the wages she's owed, "and he basically threw me out of his office. He basically told me to prove my hours. That's when I got a lawyer," Parish said.

After 10 years of working for Ahmad, Parish said, she never thought this could happen.

"Now I'm seeing a different side of him," she added.

Another former employee, Casey Williams of Villa Grove, said some patients were upset because they came to the office looking for Ahmad when he took a trip out of the country this past summer and was gone the entire month of July through the first week of August.

Another doctor eventually paid her and her co-workers during Ahmad's absence, she said, but after Ahmad returned, "he said he couldn't pay us."

Williams said she worked as Ahmad's biller from April through September, and Ahmad still owes her a paycheck. She also says Ahmad sent a Champaign County sheriff's deputy to her home the morning of Sept. 17.

According to a report taken by the sheriff's deputy, Ahmad called police Sept. 16, telling them he had fired an employee (name redacted) two weeks prior and a computer disc used to enter billing data was missing and the program had been uninstalled from a computer.

Sheriff's Lt. Ed Ogle said the employee was interviewed and denied the accusations, a report was taken and the case was closed.

"It's a mess," Williams said. "I didn't know a doctor, of all people, could be like this."

Looking elsewhere for care

Gaines says she doesn't want Ahmad treating her or her family anymore because of the way he left town, and because of the changes she observed in his demeanor over the years.

"If I had a splinter and he was the only doctor in the world who could take it out, I would leave it in," she said.

Gaines said she's already asked Ahmad's office to fax her medical records to her new doctor. She said she was told copies would be faxed to a doctor's office free — but if she wanted to obtain copies herself, the charge would be $200.

A fellow former patient of Ahmad's, Krystal Vollmer of Longview, said her only notice that her doctor was leaving Sidney was what she heard by "word of mouth" so she, too, is turning elsewhere for care.

A diabetic with a heart condition, Vollmer said Ahmad was keeping an eye on a cyst under one of her arms, and when she began having a problem with it, she had no idea where to find him.

"I guess I feel that I shouldn't have to go looking for him," she added. "He should have notified us, so I'm in the process of changing doctors."

Any person can file a complaint against a health care provider (or against anyone who holds a professional license) with the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, according to department spokeswoman Sue Hofer.

Complaints can be filed online at http://www.IDFPR.com.

Just click on "file a complaint" and describe what happened, Hofer said.

"All you have to do is tell us what that professional did that you felt was inappropriate, unprofessional or wrong and then we open an investigation for every complaint we receive," she said.

Licensees found to be in violation are subject to disciplines that can include a written reprimand, fine, suspension or permanent revocation of a license, Hofer said.

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