Jeff Tuck – Summit Medical Group
As a young nurse interested in healthcare administration, Jeff Tuck recalls a pivotal conversation with an executive at a Tennessee hospital a few decades ago.
“We need people in healthcare who understand law, and we need lawyers who understand healthcare,” Tuck was told. “I have conversations with lawyers who don’t understand when I say, ‘we need a nuclear treadmill for stress tests.’ I’d love to have a lawyer here who understands the law from a healthcare standpoint.”
That piqued Tuck’s interest enough to take the LSAT and score well enough to enroll at University of Tennessee College of Law in 1991. By 1998 he commenced with a 23 years-plus legal career at what’s become East Tennessee’s biggest primary care network, Knoxville-based Summit Medical Group.
And how that executive’s words from long ago ring louder today, says Tuck.
“Because of my nursing background, I’ve been able to gain credibility with physicians much quicker than other lawyers because I speak their language,” he tells Vanguard in July. “They can talk to me about complex clinical and regulatory issues, and when they realize I understand, I’m better able to mesh with the organization.”
What Tuck so often hears is that physicians want to treat patients with as little outside interference as is practically possible, but they must make concessions to such controlling entities as hospitals, health maintenance organizations, insurance companies and investment groups.
A physician-owned network with 80-something practice sites serving over 1 million patients annually in East Tennessee, Summit affords its several hundred members their independence through professional infrastructure. That includes a centralized laboratory certified by the Commission on Office Laboratory Accreditation. According to Tuck, that and Summit’s ancillary services are at least as good as what a physician can access at a hospital or insurance company.
A void filled
General practitioners and primary care doctors make up most of the membership, Tuck explaining that it’s just not cost-effective for the healthcare heavyweights to focus on family medicine and managing chronic conditions. Hence, Summit’s ability to make a difference by enabling its member physicians to fulfill their responsibilities while maintaining their independence.
“We’re looking for groups centered around primary care, a productivity-based compensation model and a lack of affiliation with a hospital system or at least being willing to step away from such an affiliation,” Tuck says.
He assists in onboarding those physicians, vetting them or their associations and reviewing contracts. Once in the network, he says the physicians can leave the administrative matters to Summit’s back office.
With Tuck as chief legal officer, Summit stays in compliance with the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act as well as the evolving regulations for such matters as Medicare reimbursements. He muses that so frequently do these rules change that healthcare lawyers are more in demand today than when he came to Summit, but not as much in demand as they’ll be when he retires.
“Electronic records and the maintaining of data privacy have transformed healthcare law,” he says. “It’s creating roles for healthcare lawyers that didn’t exist, especially as in-house counsel.”
The versatile Tuck in that role, he collaborates with Summit’s chief information officer and infotech staff that maintain electronic health records. Like so many data-centric organizations, Summit relies increasingly on the cloud for cybersecurity and accessibility. Summit also retaining certified public accountants and various operational experts, its physicians are indeed spared much of the non-medical tasks.
“Our strongpoint is robust, value-based care that supports quality and efficiency,” Tuck says. “We can compete with the large entities.”
For now, it deals with express clinics, diagnostic imaging, laboratory services, physical therapy and sleep disorders.
Summit doesn’t yet have surgeons in its network, though Tuck says that could change along with the network’s geographical footprint that now covers 15 counties, all in East Tennessee. The so-called Volunteer State being 440 miles long, there’s room to expand and Tuck predicts Summit’s model will continue attracting physicians committed to practicing independently.
“We do need growth to maintain our model,” he says. “It’s a win-win situation if we can find groups looking to consolidate while remaining independent.”
Summit certainly has grown since Tuck joined as a vice president and general counsel in 1998, three years after 35 Knoxville physicians founded the company. Tuck recalls it having 18 locations, and how the network has multiplied.
“I tell everyone that I use my nursing background every day,” says Tuck, a native Tennessean whose diploma from St. Mary’s Medical Center School of Nursing and BA in healthcare management from Maryville College preceded his legal education. “That’s true whether I’m looking at medical records or talking to a physician about a high-risk patient. I rely on my nursing background every day.”
That holds true even when he’s off the job. Tuck is a board member and legal advisor with Trinity Health Ministries, a nonprofit that provides low-cost dental care to underprivileged adults. Tuck also volunteers with Online Tenn Justice, answering healthcare-related questions over the internet.
And his legal savvy is further nurtured by son Evan Tuck, also a University of Tennessee College of Law graduate, who began his career as a judge advocate for the Air Force in 2017 and now serves as chief of civil law at Little Rock Air Force Base, Little Rock, Arkansas.
“When he’s home, he gets to keep me up to date on other parts of the law,” the proud father says. “It too can come in handy.”
View this feature in the Vanguard Fall II 2021 Edition here.
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