CHAMPAIGN — When his father was dying of cancer, Carl Hill remembers, the doctor who came to see him every night: Maher Ahmad.
When his wife, Jane, had a gall bladder attack, Hill says, Ahmad came right to their home.
So when Ahmad needed help getting through a difficult and contentious move of his medical practice from Sidney to Champaign, the Hills didn't hesitate.
In fact, they are among seven volunteers who have been putting in long hours working for free at the doctor's new offices at 407 E. University Ave., C, they say.
An internal medicine doctor who was Sidney's only practicing physician for 13 years, Ahmad moved to Champaign this past October, upsetting many of his patients and former employees in the process.
More than four months later, Ahmad says he doesn't want to dwell on the past.
"I'm trying to move forward," he says. "We've been dealing with so many problems."
Many things didn't get done at his former clinic in Sidney and problems have had to be corrected, Ahmad says at his new offices in Champaign.
But, he also says, "The main thing at this point is to work on this clinic."
To the rescue
Hill, the owner of Hillshire Realty/Construction/Development, says he stepped in to help save the doctor's business.
Ahmad had originally worked for Community for Family Health — a now-defunct, not-for-profit organization that wanted to bring a local doctor to town. He assumed the group's mortgage to buy the Sidney clinic in 2004.
But financial troubles developed when money ran short — issues Ahmad and some of his volunteer staff members attribute to things they say didn't get done at the former office. For example, Carl Hill says, co-payments often weren't collected for office visits.
The Hills first met Ahmad through their daughter, Melissa.
"We kind of adopted him," Carl Hill says. "He had no family in town."
Hill and his wife, a registered nurse, and five others are now helping Ahmad with patients and catching up on billing, patient charts, outdated insurance information and other paperwork that four of them say had run behind in Ahmad's old office.
"If I didn't have people that cared about me and the practice, I would have never discovered that," Ahmad said.
One of the volunteers working with the Hills is Jean Teems of Perry, Ga., a nurse and Jane Hill's sister.
"Dr. Ahmad helped the family, so I wanted to help Dr. Ahmad," she said.
Sheila Ozhayta, another nurse/volunteer, says there aren't that many independent doctors left in Champaign-Urbana and it's important to keep those that are left.
"He's important," she says of Ahmad.
She recalls the first time she walked into the Sidney clinic last August, saw what she thought to be problems in the way it was working, and had a nurse's instinct to make it right.
Hill said he's been going back and forth between construction sites and Ahmad's Champaign offices, and is making headway on financial issues.
Payments are being made in connection with an Internal Revenue Service lien placed against Ahmad's properties last year for an unpaid $25,554 balance on employer withholding taxes for 2009, Hill said.
He also said all of Ahmad's former employees who made claims for unpaid wages have been paid, though a check for one employee is still going through Illinois Department of Labor channels.
Documents supplied to The News-Gazette by the Department of Labor in a Freedom of Information request verified $3,962 was released Feb. 7 to one of Ahmad's former employees who made a claim for unpaid wages. However, any other potential claim files are still open and not subject to FOIA release, the department said.
Casey Williams of Villa Grove, Ahmad's former biller in Sidney who said she has a pending Department of Labor claim for $200 in unpaid wages, said earlier this month that she had yet to receive a check.
A deal is also in the works for Ahmad's medical office building at 210 S. David St., Sidney, according to Hill and Dr. Martin Koeck, husband of the mortgagee, Doris Koeck.
Koeck said Ahmad left town nine months behind on the mortgage, and he's arranged to transfer the property to Philo veterinarian Rebecca Kamerer. If the sale goes through, Kamerer will relocate her practice there in April, she and Koeck said.
Ozhayta says the focus now is for Ahmad's practice to thrive.
"We have worked countless hours, many weekends, trying to get ahead of this," she says.
When Ahmad left Sidney, many patients said they didn't know where to find him because they weren't notified he was leaving.
Carl Hill says Ahmad placed signs on his building at least three times, but somebody kept taking them down.
For Koeck, a retired physician in Sidney, releasing Ahmad from the mortgage obligation and making a new deal on the building will bring at least some closure to a chapter that started in 1996 with the start of Community for Family Health, he says.
But if he could get the IRS off his back, that would be a "great feeling," he says.
Both he and one of his daughters, Jacqlyn Compton, are still dealing with federal tax liens on their personal assets related to the medical practice dating back to the years it was run by the community organization.
Plus, the Illinois Department of Revenue has a pending lien on Community for Family Health related to unpaid withholding income taxes.
The state tax lien — $209,700 for withholding taxes, penalties and interest owed for the years between 1996 and 2003, before Ahmad owned the practice — was filed last April after collection efforts were unsuccessful, according to the Department of Revenue.
The IRS lien on Koeck's assets, filed in November 2010, is for $164,749 in unpaid taxes, penalties and interest between 1998 and 2003.
Two IRS liens filed on Compton's assets, both filed last year, total 167,734 in taxes, penalties and interest between 1998 and 2003.
Koeck was an officer of the community organization and Compton was its registered agent, according to a document on file with the Illinois secretary of state's office. Compton was also in charge of paying bills for the medical practice in its early years, but was unaware that she was the registered agent of the not-for-profit community organization until recently, she said.
Neither the IRS nor the state Department of Revenue will disclose details of cases involving individual taxpayers. But Compton said all the liens are related to employee withholding taxes related to the medical practice and the taxes were paid — though sometimes late because some months there wasn't enough money coming in at the doctor's office to make ends meet.
Compton says the IRS is pursuing her and her father because their names were on signature cards. She also contends the IRS has the money, but an error was made on where to apply it, and the time frame to fix the error has passed.
Koeck said he is awaiting word on an appeal he has pending with the IRS, and Compton said she may file for bankruptcy on behalf of the community organization in hope that it will help her own situation with the IRS.
"I just want the whole thing to go away," she said.
Compton also says she's ready to move on as soon as Ahmad settles up with her sister, Christine Reifsteck, a former employee in Ahmad's office.
Reifsteck still has a pending lawsuit against Ahmad in Champaign County, alleging he deducted money from her paychecks for health insurance for her and husband for several months during 2010 but didn't make the premium payments. During that time, her husband had carpal tunnel surgery that cost $8,169, unaware that coverage had lapsed. Reifstek also alleges in the lawsuit that Ahmad owes her about $1,600 in unpaid wages from 2010.
Donald Parkinson, who was representing Ahmad in that suit, filed a motion Feb. 7 to withdraw as his attorney, stating he was unable to represent Ahmad based on a lack of communication and cooperation from his client.
Reifsteck disputes Ahmad's and his volunteers' accounts of how things went in the Sidney office, saying the doctor sometimes didn't finish his charting or turn in paperwork for hospital procedures and visits that would have allowed for good reimbursements to come into the office.
"He didn't do his part," she added.
Compton says she's always believed Ahmad is a good doctor, but she adds: "The buck stops with him. He was the one in charge."
Williams, who worked as Ahmad's biller from April through September of last year, says the charges were years behind when she arrived.
"When I started billing for him, he was already three years behind in charges," she said.
For his part, Ahmad says his patients' interests have always been his priority.
"We're here to make things better," he says.
Teem says the doctor has gotten many hugs from his volunteer crew.
"It's like he's our patient," Ozhayta says.