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The outside of the former Peak Primary Care clinic at 5811 Lee Highway, Suite 405, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Staff photo by Elizabeth Fite.

A primary care clinic on Lee Highway that targeted vulnerable and unconventional patients — including families who did not want to vaccinate their children — was abruptly closed last month after allegations it was operating illegally.

Peak Primary Care was in service for nearly a year and its owner, Casey Sharp, promoted the clinic heavily on social media among mothers' groups. A number of the clinic's patients were children, uninsured or on TennCare — Tennessee's Medicaid program for low-income kids, families and people with disabilities.

Sharp touted the venture as a "full service primary care clinic" where patients were "listened to and treated with dignity and respect," and she said in Facebook direct messages her decision to close it in January was "entirely financial." However, documents from the Chattanooga Police Department and Tennessee Department of Health paint a different picture.

The clinic's primary provider from August 2019 to January 2020 — a physician assistant named Patricia Geraghty — was not legally authorized to treat patients, because she did not have a supervising physician, according to her Tennessee licensure file. The department of health does not comment on investigations, but a copy of a letter obtained by the Times Free Press reveals the department began investigating a complaint against Geraghty on Jan. 17.

The Times Free Press interviewed or attempted to interview more than a dozen Peak Primary Care patients, but most said they were afraid to speak on the record for fear of retaliating through misuse of their private information, Social Security numbers, addresses, medical history, credit card and insurance information. In 2006, Sharp pleaded guilty to fraud in Virginia under her maiden name — Casey Jenkins — after she was charged with one count of felony attempting to obtain money by false pretenses, according to the Albemarle County Circuit Court Clerk.

Sharp said she closed Peak Primary Care due to difficulty with health insurance credentialing, and she could no longer sustain its overhead using personal money, but her patients say that decision was not conveyed to them. Several patients said they showed up for scheduled appointments only to find a dark office with locked doors. Some said they've been unable to fill their needed prescriptions, such as anti-seizure medicine and antidepressants, as a result.

"There has been a community of people Casey has personally sought out that are left high and dry with no answers," said Jenna Smith, a mother who reported Sharp and Peak Primary Care to Chattanooga police. "We are shaken and upset that someone would come into our family and devastate our trust and faith in the health care system by someone who assured us all they were here to give the best care."

Sharp contends that the clinic delivered on its promise.

"We treated uninsured veterans for free and connected them with resources to help them get the benefits that they were entitled to," she said. "We encouraged our patients to make their own well-educated health care decisions, including but not limited to whether or not to vaccinate. It is becoming increasingly difficult for parents to find pediatricians who are comfortable with the decision not to vaccinate."

Former patients who need records may send a request to info@peakprimarychattanooga.com, Sharp said.

Smith, another patient and a Chattanooga doctor who suspects the clinic may have used his credentials without his permission filed police reports with the Chattanooga Police Department in mid-January. That patient did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation, and the doctor did not want to go on the record until the investigation is complete and his suspicions are confirmed or denied.

The case was briefly investigated by the police department's fraud unit before being referred to the Tennessee Department of Health on Jan. 22, according to Chattanooga police spokeswoman Elisa Myzal.

"This is a medical licensing issue and not a criminal matter that [the department] would handle. If it's determined through the investigative process that there is a criminal/Fraud element then CPD could potentially be involved in the future," Myzal said in an emailed statement.

Sharp said Geraghty had a supervising physician and that her clinic operated legally. However, Sharp said she's unwilling to release the supervising physician's name because it's part of an ongoing investigation with the Tennessee Department of Health.

Geraghty said she was under the impression that all her paperwork and licensure requirements had been fulfilled by Sharp, but that she had never met the clinic's supervising physician and that she didn't know his name.

Dr. James Haynes, a family medicine specialist at UT Family Practice and president of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society, said it would be inappropriate and against state law for a physician assistant in Tennessee not to know their supervising physician. The law requires physician assistants to have a written agreement with their supervising physician, who reviews a percentage of their charts and completes a minimum of one site visit per month. While physician assistants are great assets within medicine, they're only as good as the people supervising them, he said.

"You don't know what you don't know," Haynes said. "There's more chance of error with lack of oversight and lack of integration and coordination."

On average, doctors who specialize in primary care, family medicine or internal medicine complete 15,000 clinical contact hours during medical school and residency, compared to physician assistants, who average about 2,000 hours of contact hours during their training, according to Haynes.

Smith, a member of several Facebook groups for local mothers, said she decided to take her children to Peak Primary Care around Dec. 1 because she was new to the area and looking for a medical clinic for her family.

"[Sharp] was the first to comment on my [Facebook] post that they would be accepting patients very soon and would take our insurance," Smith said.

After a few appointments, Smith said she began to question the clinic's legitimacy when staff didn't fill out the supervising physician's information during a physical her son needed in order to undergo surgery. Then the clinic never sent required paperwork to the surgeon, and Smith went "on a wild-goose chase for the attending physician," she said.

Smith said she wants others to not be afraid to ask questions and expect answers from their medical providers, and know that "it's your right to advocate for yourself and your family."

The department of health investigation into Peak Primary Care remains ongoing.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6673.

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